March 16, 2007

Venus & Adonis: A Masque For Puppets @ The Swan Theatre

One of the problems with revivals is that the press aren’t particularly concerned second time around. ‘Venus and Adonis’ doesn’t have a press night during its week-long stay at the Swan, and all professional reviews of it are buried deep in internet archives. A large proportion of the Stratford audience saw it in 2004, when it first came around, and so there hasn’t been as much excitement about this production as I belive there was first time round. Which is a shame, as last night’s very short (only an hour) presentation was truly beautiful, definitely at the top end of the RSC’s productions this year.

I’m lucky enough to have seen this style of puppet theatre before, both in Doran’s ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream’ and in productions at Warwick Arts Centre, and it never ceases to amaze me. The puppets were handled so masterfully that they really came to life, and the creators had the tiniest details down to perfection- the breath of the boar blowing Venus’ cloak, the tilts of the horses’ heads, the neutral expression on Venus’ face that nonetheless conveyed mischief, grief and joy.

Harriet Walter narrated the poem, giving a splendid reading that brought out the poetry clearly and dramatically- it was funny, moving, upsetting and sexy all at once. She also took on Venus’ voice with startling effect, to such an extent that a direct address she gave to Venus gave me a real jolt, as I suddenly remembered that it wasn’t Venus herself speaking. It may sound silly, but Harriet’s performance was spellbinding and so well synchronised with the action that you could genuinely lose yourself in the story.

The music was also wonderful, provided by a lone guitarist who took a prominent position with the narrator in front of the stage, and drove the action forward with a range of classical melodies. His long instrumental covering the passage of the night was particularly beautiful.

This play belonged to the puppets though. Whether it was Death, his arms descending from the sides of the tiny proscenium arch stage to cradle Venus, the Boar scuffling round the audience or the horses vying with Adonis for freedom, they were so well presented that I feel justified judging this as a ‘real’ play with proper actors. The skill and craftmanship were impressive, but far more impressive was the fact that you could watch the play just as easily as if human actors were playing the parts.

The age limit on the production specifically refuses under-15s from watching the play. It was vivid, and the director didn’t shy away from bringing out Venus’ aggressive sexuality as she wrapped herself around her reluctant lover. As with Doran’s ‘The Rape Of Lucrece’, it was easy to forget that this is a narrative poem, not a play- the characters are so vividly painted and the plot so engaging that it immediately lends itself to the stage.

The production moves to London next week, with John Hopkins (Octavius Caesar from ‘Antony and Cleopatra’, another great actor) taking over the narration, and I’m very interested to see it there and see how a male voice lends itself to Venus’ musings. It would also be fun to see the Little Angel Theatre, dedicated to the presentation of similar puppet shows. I thoroughly recommend this production to anyone, particularly if you don’t know the poem- it’s beautiful, clear and visually stunning, a wonderful contribution to the Festival.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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