BWW Interview: Stefan Adegbola Talks BOTTICELLI IN THE FIRE at Hampstead Theatre
Stefan Adegbola is currently starring in Hampstead Theatre's production of Botticelli in the Fire as Poggio di Chiusi, the title character's close friend. We caught up with him to have a chat about the show and the peculiar relevance of Renaissance matters.
What is Botticelli in the Fire about?
Botticelli in the Fire is, essentially, a queering of history. For those people who don't quite understand the term "queering history", it's all founded on the notion of taking the gaps that we have from the absence of records about certain elements of people's lives and colouring them in with what we imagine could have happened.
In the case of Sandro Botticelli - who was one of the great Renaissance painters - we know that he was, at one point, accused of sodomy in Florence. We also know that he gave up a lot of his works to the Bonfire of the Vanities, which was primarily encouraged by the preacher Girolamo Savonarola.
Out of that, our playwright Jordan Tannahill has spun this extraordinary, vivid tale of a man who is living in what was, essentially, the city of free speech and free expression of its time, Florence, the heart and home of the Renaissance. He's taken this character, or rather, this figure from history, this place from history, and he's built a story that is a vivid retelling or a warning to modern times about freedom of expression, love, power, wealth, inequality, sexual danger, and art.
There's a clear parallel with modern society - was it immediately clear from the get-go or was it something you built in the process?
I'll go a little bit further back, if that's OK with you. When I read the script, it was very clear that there were anachronistic references from the very first page. So, I knew that it wasn't going to be a straight historical drama. If it was that, I would have probably not been interested in doing the show. It was always clear from the breakdown of the actual piece itself that it was going to draw parallels to modern-day issues and struggles.
However, what was really interesting was that during the earliest part of the process, our director Blanche McIntyre talked about a trawling net. If you were to get a net and trawl from the bottom of the seabed right up to the surface, what you'd get is remnants from everything that's at the bottom and everything you meet on the way up. I suppose in many ways that's what this play is trying to do with its parallels to history.
You get a little bit of Renaissance, a little bit of 1480s, but in the actual presentation of what we're giving you in 2019, you're getting everything that's happening in between. Things happen in cycles, don't they? There's a line in the play by Lorenzo de' Medici, who says that there's always a plague, there's always a fire, and there's always a friar who wants to throw things in it.
In modern life, what we can loosely call "modernity", we have struggled for 500 years with this idea of how much liberty do we give, how and where does that stop, and at what point do people start being perceived as too liberal and what's the reaction to that? How do we deal with those who are illiberal in a liberal society?
Who do you play?
I play Poggio di Chiusi, who's one of the few invented characters in the play. He is the best friend. He's the sassy, clever, witty, fiercely loyal, brave, and proud best friend of Sandro Botticelli. He is his right-hand man, his confidante, his biggest supporter and fan. He's also an artist of his own right, but he's a very politically energised, exuberant character. He's also proudly gay. He is camp, and witty, and a bon vivant. At the same time, he's incredibly capable of being serious when it's needed.
Not only he is serious, but he's uncompromising when he's serious. The best word to describe him is "uncompromising". He's uncompromisingly himself, he uncompromisingly embodies his beliefs, fights for what he believes is right, and uncompromisingly chastises even those he loves - like Sandro for what he perceives as weakness.
How did you prepare?
Well, I wouldn't say I'm a fan of it, but I certainly have an interest in art and art history, and actually I have quite an interest in Renaissance art. I was familiar not just with Botticelli's famous works but also with some of his lesser-known ones. So, I already had a light background. For the purpose of the play, what I decided to do was actually not to do too much research, because of the fact that it was not a play about Renaissance history or art.
It's more a play about love and friendship, desire, and managing that as you work your way through the world. What I actually thought to do was to look at more things to do with political struggle, groups who have fought for civil rights and different other causes, and stuff that's more local. I was really struck by this idea of being a member of the queer community that's actually passed the vanguard rather than the typical just-going-to-a-club-in-Soho one. I did some research in drag, queer art, queer theory of academic pursuit. I did a bit of reading on that.
I went back to RuPaul's Drag Race, which I'd stopped watching, which is a very exuberant, clear example of people being their authentic selves engaging in an activity which is not only something that they enjoy doing, but that has an art to it, because the art of drag is a very specific skill that draws from mainstream and fringe art and expression.
Why should people see it?
I think, if you're in any way following events, and if you're at all disturbed by what feels like a repetition of history, you should. A lot of people, a lot of commentators, a lot of discussions in workplaces, schools, pubs, a lot of them are focusing on what's going on at the moment and how reminiscent it is of previous, similar struggles. I think what's so powerful about this play is that we not only see that there's a cyclical element to this whole thing, but it also has the power of a message that's just pronounced love.
It doesn't do it in a wishy-washy platitudinal everybody-just-be-nice-to-each-other way. It does say that you must fight for love and that love is active, and doing the right thing takes effort, and that sometimes you might be swimming against the tide and sometimes you might have to give up some of your privileges to achieve it.
I think you should see the show if you want to see an honest approach from a queer perspective to the issues that we are facing today and the issues that we have always been facing - not just as queer people, but as human beings - in a fun, exuberant, and intelligent way with big gestures, and big theatrical moments, as well as some really powerful, intimate storytelling.
Photo credit: Manuel Harlan