Hampstead Theatre, London – until 23 November 2019
Sandro Botticelli, he makes clear to us at the start, plans to tell his version. He’s Dickie Beau: skinny and swaggeringly queeny in black ripped jeans and cowlick. He has nipped back after 500 years to explain why history shows this lushest, most erotic of Renaissance painters renouncing art as sinful, siding with the cold virtue of Savonarola the bigot and burner of sodomites, and consigning many of his own paintings and the gorgeous frivolities of luxury and literature to the infamous “Bonfire of the Vanities” in 1497.
Jordan Tannahill’s play, premiered here after Canada, is gloriously staged under Blanche Macintyre’s direction. James Cotterill’s sets fluidly, with all Hampstead’s technical brilliance, create before us the libertine life of the studio, the thudding corpses of the plague beyond and the flames that reek of human flesh.
But there are smartphones and jeans as well as religious habits and cloth-of-gold; the powerful Lorenzo de Medici plays squash with his painter protegé and his wife Clarice has tantrums about her car keys. That works fine, because the themes suit today nicely: popular hysteria turning on the outsider, and the poor resenting of rich arty elites. Not to mention the modern case of another religion – 500 years younger than the Christianity of Savonarola – an Islamism whose extremists in the Middle East and Africa burn and hang homosexuals just as keenly.
But back to 15c Florence. Tannahill’s imagining is that Botticelli loves his brilliant assistant Leonardo da Vinci, and screws Medici’s wife while painting her as Venus, which enrages the violent patron into condemning his lover to the flames in vengeance. So the artist strikes a bargain with Savonarola that he’ll publicly repent the sin of art and the pursuit pleasure.
Some lines faintly irritate by seeming to affirm (as is quite often the case in such plays) to assume that sole ownership of victimhood and creativity belongs to gay men of heroic promiscuity. But Beau’s tremendous performance – moving from arrogance to agony – holds you captive.
So do Sirine Saba’s irresistible Clarice/Venus and the rest. There’s a gripping sense of being trapped in an awful game with changing rules and threats: on one side a vicious Medici with a knife at your groin and dungeon- power, on the other a mob which wants to burn you. When Botticelli and his friends realise the literal use of the word faggot – bundles of kindling – their silence chars your spirit.
There are some marvellous lines: when Clarice wonders if the picture will be too “debauched” our hero chirps indignantly “Clarice I’m Botticelli, debauched is what I do. If your husband wanted you in a nun’s habit he’d have commissioned Fra Filippo!”
It briefly goes a bit Ru Paul before the interval, with a burlesque Venus and a chorus in gold lame booty-shorts filling in while – in real panic – the painter and his assistant work all night in their underpants to paint veiling hair over Clarice’s genitals before her husband sees the canvas. But then the violent reality is intensified – Adetowama Edun’s Medici is electrically nasty, and, later his victim is cradled by a forgiving mother like a Pieta (the staging uses lovely Renaissance tableau echoes). There is catharsis as he spectacularly defaces his masterpiece before our eyes, a fierce fire, and a bland credible chill in the deal with Savonarola.
Obviously and explicitly, with the fourth wall kicked down again we’re informed it has to end the way ghost Botticelli wants, so “f*** the historians in the audience”.Da Vinci doesn’t turning his back and move on and up. . Rather, Epicurean and unafraid, the men erotically share a peanut butter sandwich. What’s the point of history if you can’t improve it, eh?
www.hampsteadtheatre.com. To 23 Nov