Jordan Tannahill’s latest play, Botticelli in the Fire, is a glorious queering of Florentine Renaissance, which reveals just as much about the present as it does the past.
The Florentine Renaissance, supposedly that great golden age for human culture, has fascinated audiences since the middle of the 19th century. From George Eliot’s Romola to Thomas Mann’s Fiorenza, it has been used as a way to map out opposing dreams about human society, between liberal humanism and moral stricture. Botticelli in the Fire is an iconically 21st-century take on the matter; a camp and riotous vision of the Renaissance that seriously celebrates the kind of post-modern fetish we now have for the Renaissance.
Set at the end of the fifteenth-century, Jordan Tannahill‘s script is a full throttle retelling of this moment in history when ‘man’, apparently, discovered himself. At any rate Sandro Botticelli, protagonist of the play, has certainly discovered himself. Played by Dickie Beau, he is a swaggering, fame-hungry party boy from the early 2000s, all ripped jeans, low shirt and pointed boots. We are here to celebrate him at a party, hosted by his munificent benefactors, the Medici family, where Sandro is about to receive the biggest commission of his life: a chance to paint Lorenzo de Medici’s wife, Clarice Orsini.
Unfortunately for Sandro, his career collides with the uprising of the millenarian friar Girolamo Savonarola (played by Howard Ward), whose prophecies of doom are about to set Florence on fire. In a pitch of highest melodrama, Sandro must choose between love and fortune, as his beloved assistant Leo (Leonardo da Vinci no less, played by Hiran Abeysekera) is captured and threatened with death. Is this the greatest love story history never witnessed? Maybe not. The premise of Sandro and Leo is tempting but not altogether convincing. Their story together is never fully developed: the emphasis is insistently on Sandro, as we watch him decide to save Leo and then plead for his love. The strongest relationships in the play are not ones of desire but of friendship, between Sandro and his best friend Poggio di Chiusi (Stefan Adegbola), and, poignantly, between them and their unseen friends whose lives are increasingly threatened by the hetero-moralism of Savonarola. As Poggio rushes out to see whether his friends have escaped the fire, the play pays tribute to decades of queer activism, and alludes to the ongoing pain and heartbreak still faced by many in the queer community.
The rise of Savonarola, too, is as past-present exposé, a comment on populism as he wheels his microphone and works his way onto the biggest news channels of the day. His voice is entertained and therefore permitted; what is initially a tolerance for speech quickly becomes a platform, and the Medici are left floundering as to how to react to radicalism whilst respecting their liberal cultural policies. Adetomiwa Edun is icily brilliant as Lorenzo, always fighting and failing to keep his veneer of jovial calm. His world is crumbling around him, but he keeps up his games of squash and drinks, insisting that culture and pleasure remain the highest values of human life. Culture, though, doesn’t stretch far enough for him to accept Sandro’s portrayal of his wife as a nude Venus.
This is obviously not the place to nitpick with historical details but for the historian (who Sandro says can go ‘fuck themselves’) there is something quite delicious in the recasting of Clarice (Sirine Saba) from pious Christian to public school glamour girl. The ‘real’ Clarice was known to be disapproving of Lorenzo’s love of pagan antique culture, but here she is romping through the Renaissance, bored stiff of Lorenzo and trapped in a loveless power union. Sandro paints Clarice as Venus; Saba turns into Venus herself, in perhaps the strongest scene of the play. Wheeled on stage in full glitter, she is accompanied by Britney’s ‘Work Bitch’ and a troupe of neon dancers. There she laments her fortune – it’s not all that easy being immortal, she tells us: ‘I would exchange beauty for death in a heartbeat’. Then she is merrily wheeled off again and the play continues, but the carefree beginnings are steadily undercut. Savonarola takes control of the city and the crowd, and smoke from burning bodies starts to invade the stage.
Sandro’s nightmare, his mother says, is of being skinned alive. When Leo’s death appears inevitable, he is shown hung up, hands tied like a rabbit in a butcher’s shop, or like a classical statue of the flayed Marsyas. Marsyas, flayed for challenging Apollo, and thinking he could outdo a god. Sandro, on the edge for thinking he could beat the ruling family, sleep with Lorenzo’s wife, and cast her as a nude Venus without his patron taking revenge. I loved it. I couldn’t not – I research the reception of the Renaissance in the 19th and 20th centuries, and it is clear to me that using the past is never a case of narrow understandings of imitation, regression, or nostalgia. The stories we tell about the past help us situate ourselves in the present. The idea of the Renaissance has proven to be one of the most powerful (but oppressive) instances of this type of identity storytelling. With Botticelli in the Fire the possibilities for this telling are hugely expanded. It’s funny, it’s silly, it’s bleak, it’s tragic – but I think it’s important, too.
Botticelli in the Fire was performed at Hampstead Theatre from 18th October to 23rd November. For more information about the production, click here.
- Hiran Abeysekera as Leonardo da Vinci and Dickie Beau as Sandro Botticelli. Photo by Manuel Harlan.
- Dickie Beau as Sandro Botticelli; Hiran Abeysekera as Leonardo da Vinci. Both photographs by Manuel Harlan.