Review: La Bella

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’s original play, La Bella, depicts the tumultuous, codependent and ultimately heartbreaking friendship between famed Italian Renaissance painter Sandro Botticelli and his muse Simonetta Vespucci. This work in progress production promises great things for its future Edinburgh Festival Fringe run in August, with its clever dialogue and shining lead actors.

La Bella, we were informed before the play began, is a preview of what is to come in its later iteration at the Fringe and therefore not a finished produced, with scenes yet to be staged and the two actors  (Netta) andJacob Cordery (Sandro) with script in hand at various moments. Inevitably therefore there are some aspects of the play that are a little rough around the edges but these do not obscure the play’s successes or detract from the piece’s entertaining and engaging nature. 

The success of Greenhalgh’s script is in its depiction of a complex and ever-changing relationship

Taking place at the Student Union’s Vane Tempest room, the set – consisting of a table and chair in the centre with two boards facing inwards covered with drawings and sketches marking either side of the stage – though minimal was effective in giving the impression of the artist’s studio where all the play’s drama took place. The actors dressed in modern day stylish clothing (Sandro is dressed in chinos, a blue shirt and dress shoes) demonstrating the play’s effective choice of setting the story in the modern day that helps ground the play in a reality the audience understand rather than distance this relatively unknown story through the edition of period clothing. Humorous musings about the Florence society give interesting context to the characters’ personal stories and lifestyles, include some great lines (“Here [in Florence], bitching is your lifeblood”). However, these meanderings do at times also detract slightly from the engagement of the piece as they divert our attention from the central dynamic of the relationship. The success of Greenhalgh’s script is in its depiction of a complex and ever-changing relationship. The play’s ability to portray famous historical figures, that could seem distant or formidable to its audience, as innately human and therefore relatable helps to make a renaissance love story instantly accessible. Just as the play explores the distance between art and reality, Greenhalgh is able to turn Botticelli and his famous “The Birth of Venus” figure into tangible and flawed characters. 

It will be interesting to see how the staging of the play develops as rehearsals continue for its Fringe run. Though the actors made good use of the space – moving around each other and switching positions between the table and the chair as their characters explored their relationship with each other – the visual engagement of the play was an area left largely unexplored at this early stage. With no lighting designer or operator for the Durham run of this show, the use of lighting, was utilitarian rather than artistic. However as this play goes to the fringe it will be it will be exciting to see how the addition of these team members will develop the lighting of this production and it could play a particularly useful role for the movement of the story through time and as the play . With nothing for the audience to rely on but the script for our understanding of the changes in time (which were numerous) through the play, the movement between scenes inevitably felt clunky at times. However, the actors did well to work with these inevitable restrictions of the play’s early development and engagingly portrayed the ever-changing dynamic between the artist and his muse.

Both Calvert and Cordery give highly engaging performances

With only the two characters and two actors on stage at one time, this is a production that in many ways rises and falls on the strength of its actors’ performances. Thankfully, both Calvert and Cordery give highly engaging performances that, combined with Greenhalgh’s snappy dialogue, depict a relationship of complexity, mixing moments of comedy with real heartfelt earnestness. Calvert particularly shines during a long monologue in which Simonetta ruminates on her six-year marriage and the feeling of losing her sense of self, portraying her character’s uncertainty and defiance with considerable skill. 

La Bella is an impressive play depicting two people enamoured by the light they bring into each other’s lives yet faced with the reality of their lives that will forever stop them from escaping into each other’s arms. The struggle between art and life is grappled with throughout the play and is artfully realised through the talent of its actors and its writer.

Image credit: Suffragette Theatre Company

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