Losing Venice

Time for a little celeb spotting inRichmond: first Anthea Turner, local resident, outside the Rock and Rose – she returns to Blue Peter later this month for their 60th birthday celebrations. Then Kathy Burke, who produced “Lady Windermere’s Fan” at the Vaudeville Theatre between January and April this year. She’s sitting in the row in front of mine for the matinee at the Orange Tree Theatre.

A couple of ladies whom I trust have lunched are sitting near me. One asks the other before this performance of “Losing Venice” begins, “Do you know what it’s about at all?”. “No,” her friend replies.

The second act opens in darkness. Wonderful sound effects of creaking and yawing tell us we are at sea. Lady One tells Lady Two, barely sotto voce, “It’s a boat”. Oh, I do enjoy myself, and agree with the reviewer who described the play as “an evanescent enchanter”.

The playwright, Jo Clifford, described in the programme as a proud father and grandmother, first graduated in Spanish and Arabic. She is quoted as saying that when she wrote the play in 1985, it was partly about how dangerous it would be for Britain not to accept that it no longer had an empire.

Clifford apparently had in mind,while writing, the Conspiracy of the Spaniards against Venice of 1618. The characters of Quevedo and the Duke are references, respectively, to the poet, adherent of conceptismo, and politician; and the 3rd Duke of Osuna, for whom Quevedo obtained by courtly intrigue the Viceroyalty of Naples. (The character of the Duke is slightly reminiscent, to me, of the late Rik Mayall’s Lord Flashheart.) Osuna formulated his own policies in Italy, and in early 1618 his galleys plundered Venetian shipping in the Adriatic Sea, bringing the vital trade of the Republic to a standstill.

It was the beginning of an outbreak of hysteria which would last until 1622. It was believed that a Spanish fleet was poised to take Venice, and the brutal process of the arrest of hundreds of suspects began.

Jo Clifford has commented of her play: “in a way, it might have been written for the year of Brexit; perhaps it was just biding its time.”.

I think I see another strand of prescience. The character Quevedo, near the end of the play, marvels at how with a metaphysical mindset the most disparate objects, such as puddles and stars, can be connected through a vast web of meaning. Five years after “Losing Venice” was written, Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web.

Scholars have offered us comparative studies of Francisco Quevedo and the English poet John Donne – he who wrote in a meditation of 1624:

“If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were…”.

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