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April 22, 2012

U–Venas no Adonisi (Venus and Adonis) (Isango Ensemble) @ Shakespeare's Globe

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The tagline for the ‘Globe to Globe’ Festival reads “37 Plays, 37 Languages”; a tagline which excludes the Isango Ensemble’s U-Venas no Adonisi, the thirty-eighth ‘play’ (a dramatised version of Shakespeare’s poem) spoken in not one but six different languages: IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeSotho, Setswana, Afrikaans and South African English. This launch production, then, functioned as a kind of prologue to the Festival, breaking in the primarily English-speaking audience with a story that retained a substantial proportion of Shakespeare’s text and embraced a range of musical traditions, making this both recognisably South African and unmistakably global.

The Isango Ensemble is primarily an opera company, and this take on Venus and Adonis was a palimpsest in both its spoken and musical languages, representing the cultural diversity of Cape Town. The influence of the western operatic tradition was keenly felt in the vocal work of the company’s formidable ‘diva’, Pauline Malefane (also one of the production’s two musical directors), whose extraordinary range and power immediately established the power dynamic that would drive her interactions as Venus with Mhlekazi Whawha Mosiea’s Adonis.

Innovatively, though, Malefane was only the first in a series of seven Venuses, all dressed identically except for individualised hairstyles and facial decorations. After an opening choral piece, the company wound an enormous bedsheet around Malefane, which was passed from actor to actor during the wooing of Adonis that occupied the play’s first half. In this way, Venus was kept constantly fresh, wearing down the increasingly embattled Adonis. The change in physical identity was accompanied by continual variety in musical stylings, taking in street rap, showtime (with a comically smiling troupe of chorus girls), jazz (with the male cast members donning shades and clicking fingers), tribal chanting, folk laments and rounds.

The effect was one of a melting pot of traditions, aware of the future but celebrating an African heritage. Venus and Adonis became a continental myth, the lover against the hunter. The soft melodies of Venus were countered by the raucous screaming of huntsmen, at which the usually sullen Adonis came to life, brandishing a spear and grinning wickedly in anticipation of the hunt. At these moments, the visual traditions of African carnival came to the fore. Venus entered on a horse made up of the bodies of actors, with a horse’s head on a pole held above. This horse was distracted first by Venus herself, pulling hard on his reins and scattering actors’ bodies; and later by the mare, another puppet horse brandished by Venus’s counterparts. Simphiwe Mayeki, as the actor brandishing the horse’s head, comically snorted and neighed in disdain of his master’s complaints, before prancing offstage. Luvo Rasemeni’s Boar was a more hideous presence: covered in blood and screaming, he ran about the stage, snarling and stabbing at huntsmen, enacting a mythical version of the unkillable foe.

The tone of the first half was largely comic, a mood set by the hysterical appearance of a grinning Cupid in fatsuit and "Cupid" blazoned across his chest, who brattishly embraced his mother and accidentally pricked her with one of his arrows. Aside from the Boar’s intrusions, the comic mood continued throughout the first half as the succession of Venuses threw themselves at the petulant and helpless Adonis, wrapping their sheet around him in various modes of entrapment and coercion. Adonis was largely passive, unable to resist and reduced to silence. In one especially beautiful moment, as Venus feigned death, he and she became wrapped in the tendrils of the sheet, allowing him to gently lower her to the ground then raise her for a kiss, at which she awoke and winked deliciously at the audience. After promising her a kiss, the chorus of Venuses entrapped him in a sheet, forcing him into an almost intimidatingly oppressive intimacy with the goddess.

The second half, focusing on Venus waiting for and then lamenting Adonis, was much darker, owing largely to the introduction of Katlego Mmusi’s Death. Made up from head to foot as a grinning skeleton, with long blood red tongue slithering out, Death paced the stage, clashing together two sickles to ‘kill’ Adonis’s wounded dogs. The second half became a literal dance between Love and Death; played by Malefane for the entire second half, Venus was once more a powerful but frustrated presence, throwing the invulnerable skeleton around the stage but unable to do anything more as he skulked in the shadows. Finally, the male chorus gathered, all concealed under blankets. Venus ran around revealing the men until she arrived at Adonis; and on looking into his face, Death clashed his sickles one final time.

U-Venas no Adonisi was the perfect opening to the Festival, representative of its South African visitors while speaking to a broad and accessible multicultural audience. In this sense it offered a modern idea of Africa, globally aware but celebratory of its diverse heritages. Shakespeare’s poem became a tribal story, a myth of essential human practices, and a full standing ovation welcomed this newly timeless tale back to London.

This is a slightly extended version of a review originally written for the World Shakespeare Festival Project "Year of Shakespeare".

April 06, 2007

Venus & Adonis @ The Little Angel Theatre

My ‘Complete Works’ may be over, but several of the productions that made it up are not yet! ‘Coriolanus’ is off on tour, ‘King Lear’ is still playing in the Courtyard and ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ returns to the Swan in April. On Wednesday I went for my second viewing of yet another production, ‘Venus and Adonis’, at the Little Angel Theatre in London, home of the company who created the show.

I only saw the production a couple of weeks ago, but my reasons for seeing it again were two-fold. First, I quite wanted to see the theatre itself. It’s a converted church, with pews and a puppet-sized stage. Very intimate and atmospheric, with something of a makeshift feel to it that belied the fact that this is one of the most important puppet-based companies in the UK, it was a fine little space which suited the small-scale production. The second reason for seeing it was the change in narrator, with John Hopkins (who played Caesar in ‘Antony’ and Sebastian in ‘The Tempest’) taking over from Harriet Walter.

Hopkins did an excellent job. As so much of the poem is spoken in Venus’ voice, I was interested to see whether a male narration would affect the production, but surprisingly it didn’t. Hopkins made the play his own, though, interacting freely with the action and giving Adonis in particular a lot of humour by giving him a comically heroic attitude and voice.

It struck me how fascinating it would have been to see each of the visiting companies in their ‘home’ space, especially as one or two productions (‘The Two Gentlemen Of Verona’ springs particularly to mind) suffered somewhat from an inappropriate venue at their Stratford engagement. The production, bar the change in narrator, had changed little in its home venue, but the intimacy of the space gave it a warmer feel, less epic but almost more heartfelt. I’m very much looking forward to their return to Stratford for ‘Fantastic Mr. Fox’ at Christmas!

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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