Venus and Adonis – Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon

Writer: William Shakespeare
Director: Gregory Doran
Reviewer:  John Kennedy

You are the apotheosis of male perfection – Adonis (the clue’s in the name). The Goddess of Love, Venus (ditto) is desperate to get you in the sack and at your sacs in a leafy glade down among the blue-veined violets – best not to dwell on that image. But, Lydian lad anti-culture being what it is, you’d much prefer to go boar hunting with the boys. Boring! Even your faithful palfrey is chomping at the bit when a mincing mare, promising hot oats action, trots by. It’s all going to end in tears.

Shakespeare’s luscious, homo-erotic fantasia celebrates a salaciously pithy satire of classical mythology nestling naughtily within Elizabethan Renaissance courtly romance. That he’s subverting the primal, ritualistic universality of the blood regeneration symbolism paradigm is another matter altogether. The challenge for this matinée performance is that the characters and narrative are not just presented through Shakespeare’s voluptuous verse but also realized through mime, music and puppetry. Those recalling that bedroom scene in Team America: World Police might rightly be imagining where this could go.

Described as ‘A Masque for Puppets’, Little Angel Theatre draws on Japanese Bunraku, regarded as ‘the most refined form of puppetry in the world’ according to director, Gregory Doran. Were you to add empathic, heart-rendingly witty and magically transformative to that description there would be few at this matinée performance that would disagree.

Using stringed marionettes, rod and hand manipulated protagonists and support-cast animals, together with shadow figure backdrops, there’s an uncanny unity of purpose and a sublime suspension of reality. To actually see the darkened puppeteers at work enhances the magic.

Narrator Suzanne Burdon sits forestage left. The third-life-size Baroque proscenium pediment has at its central locus a golden, burnished globe. Come the tragic dénouement, this becomes a Death’s head skull manipulating elongated skeletal hands that embrace poor Venus’ agonies. Forestage right, classical guitarist Nick Lee draws on an evocative range of lyrical shaded nuances, celebratory joys and pip-squeak timed economic pathos.

Venus descends from the heavens in her dove-drawn silver seashell chariot. She woos, she teases, she weaves her voluptuous charms with her alabaster smooth features, moon-struck eyes and blood-red lips – but Adonis is impervious to her supplications. The ensemble puppeteers evoke much gentle wit and comic gaiety through their near seamless fluidity and inventive articulation. The parallel narrative of the palfrey and mare’s mating ritual is as rich in humour as it is a symbolic rendition of Venus’ raging frustrations.

For many, it may be the simplicity of concept complemented through the complexity of choreography where the animals enhance the tragedy of Venus’ unrequited love. The balletic, will-o’the-wisp hare and the grotesque majesty of Adonis’ nemesis, the boar, perfectly reflect Shakespeare’s use of contrasting sound textures. Though she bombards her bromide dunderhead with an ecstasy of exquisite verse and voluptuous imagery, Adonis achieves a unique counter-metamorphosis – his character is more wooden than the animated puppet that represents him.

Elegiac, both in melancholy and beauty, this production is suffused in vulnerable intimacy. If it is the pursuit of honesty by puppet proxy displacement then Little Angel Theatre is pulling on all the right strings – without a shadow of a doubt.

Runs until 4 August 2017 | Image: Lucy Barriball

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