by LAUREN CODLING
A THREE-CENTURIES-OLD play that has been given a “science-fiction” make-over will be performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company from this week.
Directed by Prasanna Puwanarajah, Venice Preserved has elements inspired by DC Comics and dystopian science fiction. Adapted from Thomas Otway’s original 1682 script, the plot revolves around on the fate of a marriage amid a revolution against the Venetian senate.
Based on a collapsing empire which shows signs of totalitarianism, the story depicts how relationships fare when nations fall.
Speaking to Eastern Eye before the show’s premiere, Puwanarajah explained that the story felt timely for modern societies.
“It focuses on decisions (that individuals) make which may not necessarily be good, but are the only ones available to them,” the 37-year-old said. “It feels timely and like a world that is out there which we’re essentially hurtling toward. For a play that is 350 years old, it is not abstract. It is quite straightforwardly real.”
Although the original language has been used, this edition takes place in the more contemporary setting of the 1980s. Puwanarajah said he deliberately chose that time period so audiences could relate to the premise.
“I wanted it to feel immediately available to our audience in a way that doesn’t let them look away and place it in a historical context,” he revealed.
Asked if his own sci-fi interests inspired the setting, Puwanarajah admitted it was the other way around.
When he read the script for the first time, he said, it reminded him of darkness, with a quality of being perceived at night. It led him to tones of noir culture – the idea of crumbling cities and individuals being compelled to rise up against all odds.
“There was an unclear relationship between good and evil in which individuals are trying to thrive,” he said. “It felt like it was so in a (noir) space, so actually thinking about it all, the play seemed to reveal itself to me.”
His own love of sci-fi is undeniable. Growing up in Hampshire, the writer recalled watching 1980s TV shows He-Man, the Masters of the Universe and Thundercats. Later, he turned to Ridley Scott’s iconic Alien film franchise and Blade Runner.
Currently, Puwanarajah is co-creating and writing his own graphic novel – a “space-western” with Line of Duty writer Jed Mercurio.
“Sci-fi and film noir is always something I was interested in,” he said. “You know, all those graphics novels such as (DC superhero comic series) Watchmen – it is something that has always been in the bandwidth of my life.”
His directorial credits include The Reluctant Fundamentalist, a theatrical take on Mohsin Hamid’s critically acclaimed 2007 political thriller. The play was staged in several cities, including Bradford and Edinburgh, across a period of three years, with Puwanarajah at the helm.
Transitioning from The Reluctant Fundamentalist, an insight into a Pakistani migrant’s experiences in the US, to Venice Preserved has been an interesting experience, Puwanarajah explained. Although he did not initially expect the works to have similarities, he found they had comparable themes running through them.
“They are [both] about how people behave, how they treat each other and how they are trying to hang on to each other in times of major upheaval. Both those plays are fundamentally about that,” he said. “There are new things to explore but, more and more, the things that draw me to plays end up feeling like the same thing.”
Puwanarajah has worked as a director in theatre for more than a decade. Also known for his acting work in hit TV shows Doctor Foster and Patrick Melrose, he said he has seen the industry change vastly since his debut.
There has been a “valuable preoccupation” with diversifying artistic platforms, Puwanarajah said. The British-Asian doctor turned actor-director felt it was something which was genuinely at the front of the discourse.
However, there are aspects which remain to be confronted, he admitted.
“The next stop is to get refinement into that so we are challenging tokenism and looking to build people up from the grassroots into positions where they can work in our industry in stable ways,” he said. “So, there is still loads to do, but it feels like things are moving and that’s a good thing.”
Venice Preserved will be showing at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-Upon-Avon from Friday (24) until September 7.