Botticelli in the Fire: more like an episode of Skins than a serious challenge to heteronormative narratives of history
Botticelli in the Fire opens with Sandro Botticelli (Dickie Beau), one of the greatest painters of the Florentine Renaissance, staggering on to the centre of the stage, quite abruptly, and languidly holding an open bottle of wine. Taking a swig, he asks the audience “Turn off your fucking cell phones, alright?” In a leather jacket paired with ripped jeans, writer Jordan Tannahill envisions a rock-and-roll portrayal of Sandro Botticelli. In a time that became plagued not only with disease, but also with the ignorance of religious fanatics, we are the voyeurs, the drooling spectators implicit in all that eventually condemns our protagonist.
We are introduced to his friends and fellow painters, Leonardo Da Vinci (Hiran Abeysekera) and Poggio di Chiusi (Stefan Adegbola). If you weren’t already aware that Tannahill is a political activist interested in the queering of history, you will be as soon as you see the very camp Poggio sing ‘Girls Just Want to Have Fun’.
The Medici – Lorenzo de’ Medici (Adetomiwa Edun) and Clarice Orsini (Sirine Saba) – who are a powerful couple running the city, throw an opulent party, that even has “two giraffes in the back garden”, in honour of Botticelli. Clarice finds Botticelli on the balcony, and in a scene with electrifying sexual tension, Clarice reveals that Botticelli is awarded the commission of painting her. The next scene after this, we find Sandro’s face buried under the sheets between Clarice’s legs as she howls in pure ecstasy.
The painting becomes a central, foreboding prop. The Birth of Venus gives away that Botticelli has been doing more than just painting Lorenzo’s wife. Director Blanche McIntyre makes up for the bland script by putting the focus on the power of art, which has Botticelli stand in front of his work, bloodied, sobbing with his trousers around his knees and broken. Botticelli proceeds to throw pots of paint at his work in an emotional outburst, which leaves the stage showered in bright colours.
Girolamo Savonarola (Howard Ward) is the stark contrast to ideas about the bright, new chapter of ‘Enlightenment’ and its art. His extreme religious rhetoric that brainwashes the people into setting homosexuals on fire, appeals to our souls, and is preached through loudspeakers on street corners – a familiar sight to even a modern audience – that is not taken seriously by the liberal elites, at least not at first.
Dangerously, a romance develops between Botticelli and his apprentice, Leonardo. However, when Botticelli’s love affair with Clarice is given away by his painting, he agrees to offer Leonardo to the rioters as his punishment. This regretful act leads him further down the path to ruin as he burns many of his works in The Bonfire of the Vanities to appease Savonarola and get his lover back. The romance between these two, however, is disappointingly artificial and not convincing enough. This may be because neither of them is very likeable. There is a tedious repetition of human body proportions, to echo the genius of Da Vinci. Botticelli is supposedly likeable because he says he is. It all reeks of trying too hard.
Sandro Botticelli and Leonardo Da Vinci are these great, towering personas which have succeeded the test of time. They are very big boots to fill. Dickie Beau and Hiran Abeysekera are instead dominated and diminished by the rest of the cast who have a far stronger stage presence. Clarice (Sirine Saba), is perhaps the most interesting character of them all. Saba’s voice is wonderfully bold and authoritative, cutting through a very male-dominated atmosphere. The lack of charisma of these eminent figures of the Florentine Renaissance is an amalgamation of poor casting and a shallow script. To hear the words ‘suck on a bag of dicks’ being uttered from the mouth of Leonardo Da Vinci makes the play seem more like an episode of Skins than it does a serious challenge to heteronormative narratives of history.
If you can forgive its shortcomings, Botticelli in the Fire can certainly be celebrated for its excellent direction and well-designed stage. A scene where Botticelli and Lorenzo play squash, facing the audience and reacting to the ball in time with sound effects is genius. If that doesn’t win you over, there is the treat of seeing Sirine Saba being wheeled in as Venus, joined by gasmask-wearing dancers, singing ‘Work Bitch’.
Botticelli in the Fire will be on at Hamstead Theatre until the 23rd November.
Photo Credits: Manuel Harlan