Courtly Love by Michelene Wandor

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Drama on 3 on BBC Radio 3

BBC Radio 3, 17 June 2012
In terms of casting, Courtly Love was a fascinating combination of youth and experience. Ronald Pickup appeared as Mantegna, Philip Voss as Roderigo Borgia (aka Pope Alexander VI), and Nicholas Boulton as Francesco Gonzaga. The director was Jane Morgan, a stalwart of BBC Radio Drama productions for many years. However the two central roles of Lucrezia Borgia and Isabella d'Este were played by much younger actors: Nathalie Buscombe (Lucrezia) is still a student at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama, while Grainne Keenan (Isabella) has only recently graduated from RADA.
This casting policy was both deliberate and effective as a way of emphasizing the central concerns of Michelene Wandor's play. While both Isabella and Lucrezia were young and attractive, they learned quite quickly that in order to survive in the cut-throat world of Renaissance Italy, they had to become ruthless and manipulative. To do this, they had to cultivate alternative strategies as compared to their male counterparts: whereas the men could be both direct and dominant, the women had to become more subtle. They had to exercise power indirectly in a patriarchal world where the women were expected both to assume subordinate roles, as well as producing as many offspring as possible. Pregnancy was not just a prerequisite of marriage; it was a way of life.
As the action unfolded, both women gradually grew into their appointed roles. Although seeming on the surface to be accepting the dictates of male authority, in reality they proved to be skilled manipulators - even more effective in many ways than the (male) Devil (Struan Rodger), who appeared as a physical presence.
The play ended with a dialogue between the two women, as they reflected on how they had progressed, as well as looking forward to their futures. Much of what they said was not only historically significant (giving us an insight into how people behaved at court in Renaissance Italy), but shed light on the position of women in contemporary societies. Despite the changes wrought by feminism, they still have to find ways of asserting themselves in the face of male domination. Isabella and Lucrezia offered good examples of possible courses of action.
Until I listened to Courtly Love, my understanding of the Borgias was mostly influenced (perhaps prejudiced might be a better word) by the cult BBC TV drama of 1981 (clips of which are available on YouTube), in which Adolfo Celi took a leading role speaking in an incomprehensible Italian accent, supported by a rather mournful-looking Oliver Cotton. I am happy to report that Michelene Wandor's play completely changed my perception of this period in history