Director Prasanna Puwanarajah chats to us about his directorial debut at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and his move from actor to director.

Man stands and leans on stand.
Director Prasanna Puwanarajah in rehearsal for Venice Preserved
Helen Maybanks © RSC Browse and license our images

What made you want to direct this play?

It’s about what happens to relationships under oppression, and in times of huge political upheaval. There is an incredible human connectivity in the language: people are so direct with each other. And there is so much love in the play, and relationships trying to happen and trying to live. 

You’ve said that your production will have a ‘Restoration Blade Runner’ feel.  What will that look and feel like?

Well it’s a shorthand way of quickly describing a feeling that I have when I read the play of being in a perpetual night; under a kind of climate and light oppression; in a city where unseen power rules unchecked and where counterculture has a complex and articulated space in which to express itself. It’s as much East Berlin in the 70s and 80s. Also, I feel like it’s a play where people map the collapse of their spirit onto the collapse of a city state, and feel like they need to rescue one in order to rescue the other. 

It has all the noir elements of the dystopian graphic novel or DC Comics. I’m a child of the 80s so these things aren’t really a reach for me, but rather they represent the space in which I grew up, so the play is reaching into that space in me as much as me seeing those things in the play.

People may have a certain view of Restoration tragedies as being a little inaccessible.  How are you aiming to counter-act this perception?

The language in this play is actually incredibly direct. There are moments that feel wholly contemporary. And there are moments of tremendous beauty and wonder. I’ve cut quite a lot of the play that isn’t moving the characters forward, and I’ve tried to address some of the questions in the text that can lead to plays feeling like they don’t make human sense or generate questions like “Why is she even in that space?” or “How has that been so easy?” And I hope it will be an exciting show. It’s a brilliant story and the characters are iconic.

Venice Preserved rehearsal photos_ 2019_2019_Photo by Helen Maybanks _c_ RSC_278572
The Company in rehearsal for Venice Preserved

What do you think Michael Grady-Hall and Jodie McNee will bring to two of key roles of Jaffeir and Belvidera?

Both of them are incredible performers of complex roles. They make text complexity feel like human complexity. They are supple, electric, heartbreaking, and really quite delicate. In trying to find the human in these characters they really couldn’t be better suited to these roles, quite apart from the fact that they are really wonderful people and terrific collaborators. I really love working with them and they are loving working with each other. 

What do you think Venice Preserved has to say to a 21st Century audience? 

At the moment the play has incisive things to say about dangerous and vindictive idiots in power, and about the ongoing and multifaceted pressures faced by women in the world. 

I think genuinely great plays will always have something to say to the audience of its day without the need for deliberate attempts. In fact what might be needed is clarification, or revealing, rather than anything on top that pushes the play away beneath an idea. For me that means placing the play in a context that feels recognisable and not abstract, so that the concerns of the people and the systems in the play are immediately articulating with those in the world outside the theatre.

I’ve tried at every step to make the play feel human and real, to pull away from anything presentational or grandiose and push towards investigating who the people are and what they need to achieve. I want the production to be exciting and thrilling, and at the same time I want it to truly deliver people in a moment of devastation. 

You’re a writer, director and actor – and RSC audiences will remember you appearing in Twelfth Night here.  How do you juggle all these disciplines, and is there one of them you enjoy more than the others?

I’d be amazed if anyone remembered me in Twelfth Night: I played the Priest which is a lovely little role but there were many wonderful (and actually noteworthy) people in that production, not least Alexandra Gilbreath who it’s been great to see in the Green Room as she is in The Provoked Wife

I do feel genuinely busy at the moment which is always lovely and keeps the bills paid. On the whole for me it’s about the project and not the medium. As I say, with Venice Preserved, I felt it would be hard to pass up on the chance to do this play, a play about which I felt I knew a little bit, and which I loved and was curious about.


Venice Preserved runs in repertoire n the Swan Theatre from 24 May and BP £5 tickets are available

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