Theatre; Venice Preserved; Almeida, London N1

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The Independent Culture
There are two memorable facts about Thomas Otway. The first is that he wrote Venice Preserved (1682). The second is that, three years later, he was rescued from starvation by a stranger who gave him money for food; he promptly bought a bread roll, on which he choked to death.

There's enough irony in that story without me piling on any more: but you have to admit that there's something horribly appropriate about this as the end of the author of something as hard to swallow as Venice Preserved. The plot is founded on improbabilities and naive emotion: the idealistic Jaffeir is persuaded by his bosom friend Pierre to join a conspiracy against the Venetian state; unprompted, he offers the other conspirators his wife, Belvidera, as a hostage for his loyalty. He's then surprised when they turn out not to be lofty idealists in his own mould, and one of them tries to ravish her; he's further surprised when she, the daughter of a Venetian senator who is one of the prime targets of the revolt, is unhappy about this. He reveals the plot to the senate, and spends the rest of the play reproaching himself for betraying his friends, finally killing himself. Belvidera ties up the loose ends by dying of a broken heart.

The play is marred less by the incoherencies of the narrative than by the antiquated notion of honour that drives it along - a notion which, you feel, Otway himself doesn't subscribe to. If a modern audience responds to the play, it's because of the powerful cynicism that occasionally pokes through the play's conventional moral surface - this is a world in which, as Pierre tells Jaffeir, "Honest men / Are the soft easy cushions on which knaves / Repose and fatten"; and in which respectable senators beg prostitutes to spit in their faces and treat them like dogs (a scene played at the Almeida with a brilliant combination of cringe and menace by John Quayle).

Ian McDiarmid's production offers you glimpses of Otway's blackness, and allows you to see the way the play attempts to dramatise the links between personal and political loyalty. But while McDiarmid is clearly alive to the play's depths at an intellectual level, you never feel those insights have permeated his approach to the play.

Whether you actually enjoy this production depends largely on how you feel about David Bark-Jones's Jaffeir - an eccentric method-style performance, all shuffling feet, blinking eyes and swallowed vowels. This pays off towards the end, when Jaffeir has a lot of wild emoting to do, but has the unfortunate effect of emphasising how stilted Otway's language can be, and making the other actors look hammy - when, really, they're just offering a different set of mannerisms.

In the end, you suspect that Julian McGowan's baroque set offers the best image for the way the production works: a polished marble floor which, with a few rippling lights, doubles as a canal. It gives the illusion of depth, but really what you're seeing is a glossy surface.

n To 2 Dec. Booking: 0171-359 4404