By: WIlliam Shakespeare
Directed by: Greg Doran
Company: Little Angel/RSC
Venue: Swan Theatre
Date: Saturday 17th March 2007
This was a wonderful hour of poetry and motion, with music. Towards the back of the Swan stage was a smallish puppet theatre, about four feet high and maybe seven feet across. (Sorry, 1.3 metres and 2.2 metres respectively.) In front of it stood a bench, and to either side a chair. The guitarist sat to our left, and Harriet Walter, as narrator, sat on the right. With some classical guitar music, we were off, and Harriet spoke the intro to Venus and Adonis, the dedication to the Earl of Southampton.
As I’d been watching the guitarist, I was surprised to look back and see Will Shakespeare had popped up from behind the bench, and was sitting to one side, penning the introduction. Behind him, the curtains of the puppet stage opened, and the Earl was revealed. I didn’t quite follow why Queen Elizabeth then came on and spent some time with the young Earl – I’ll have to look up the poem when I get home.
Then the poem itself started with Venus arriving on stage in a conch shell carriage, pulled by two doves – a lovely picture. Meantime, Adonis arrives on his horse. He’s a pretty boy (Adonis, that is, although the horse wasn’t bad either), but with absolutely no manners. Venus fancies him on sight, pulls him off his horse (and sends the animal packing), and Adonis doesn’t even want to kiss her! She pleads, she cajoles, she strokes and kisses various parts of his anatomy, all without raising his interest. Finally, she swoons, and, worried that she’s dead, he approaches her to check for signs of life. Apparently this involves kissing her, just to see if she’ll wake up (I don’t remember this technique when I did first aid!). He has a couple of goes to find somewhere to rest his hand (Not the breast! Not the crotch!), he plants a serious smacker on her lips, and she miraculously revives. Following some fairly passionate clinching, which had Adonis adjusting his garments afterwards, he runs off, the churl, leaving Venus sad and lonely.
Next day, he’s out again, planning to hunt boar, and refusing to listen to Venus’ warnings about how dangerous it is. Sure enough, the boar gets him, and Venus is upset, and curses love, and it all ends unhappily. Great fun.
That’s the basic story, but there’s more detail, and this is one production where the detail is everything. The puppets are fantastic. Venus is so soft-looking and voluptuous, it’s hard to imagine any red-blooded man not falling for her. She’s full of little touches – literally, as she can hardly keep her hands off Adonis for most of the poem. She walks so beautifully, each foot lifting and stepping so delicately. When she and Adonis do kiss, her feet lift off the ground one after the other, then her legs float up, then his legs float up, then they’re floating together in mid-air (so much easier with puppets than with real actors), then that cunning love-goddess has swivelled round so they’re lying together in mid-air, then it gets a bit pornographic (kept the audience awake, though). At one point, when she’s lying down, suffering the pangs of unrequited love, she still manages to pull her skirt up to show a substantial bit of leg. Her dance with the hands of death towards the end was good, too, as she leapt from hand to hand so gracefully, expressing her happiness when she thinks Adonis is alive after all. She was worked so well and so expressively that I could easily imagine her face changing to display the emotions.
Adonis is an articulated lump of wood by comparison, which is fine, because that’s what he’s meant to be. Solid, unimaginative, makes me wonder what Venus saw in him. He’s only interested in hunting, and doesn’t care for gurls. Funnily enough, he’s going hunting clad only in a skimpy off-the-shoulder very short tunic. I suspect he’s actually well aware of his looks, and has set out to flaunt as much of his body as he can. A real pussy tease. Well, he gets his comeuppance, poor lad. When he runs off, he goes right across the stage and out of one of the side exits; a lovely mover.
His horse is good-looking, too, and he knows it. The poem describes him in some detail, and for this part, Harriet moves over to the bench where the stallion is posing, to point out the bits she’s talking about. He’s happy to oblige, but he’s even more interested in a serious bit of equine totty that shows up and flirts with him. She’s the reason he runs off and leaves Adonis stranded in the woods with a randy goddess. As Venus points out, his horse knows how to have a good time with a lady. At one point I thought they might go so far as to have the horses mating on stage – they’re in the right positions, and she does lift her tail – but there’s no coitus, interruptus or otherwise, on show.
The boar is an excellent piece of work, really menacing and LARGE! It comes on after Venus has heard the hounds howling and suspects that it’s curtains for Adonis. Meantime, she’s busy hiding herself as the boar enters, and looks around for someone to gore. His tusks are red, his bristles are big, and he’s a well-muscled killing machine. He checks out various parts of the stage, and there was nearly a nasty moment when he spotted the guitar player, and thinks about giving him a good mauling. But fortunately he heads off, leaving Venus to find Adonis’ dead body.
The other main character is death. And this was done very cleverly. The surround for the puppet stage included some moulding, which came away to form two very long arms with big, claw-like hands. At the centre top of the frame was a round device, which I’d spotted earlier, but couldn’t make out what it was. At this point, it transformed into a skull. Venus spends some time chiding death for taking away her beloved, fending his hands off, and getting really cross. Then when she hears the huntsmen, she assumes all is well, and apologises for her behaviour – this is when she has her little dance with the hands of death. It was quite impressive seeing these big hands float around without getting caught up in anything.
Nearly forgot the hare! When Venus is trying to persuade Adonis to hunt anything rather than the boar, she talks about the hare, and we get to see one – standing up, crouched down, loping round the stage. Beautifully done. And there was also a deer at the beginning, that leapt across ahead of Adonis, and puppet silhouettes that ran across the back of the stage – hounds, deer, and boar.
The narration was also excellent. Harriet Walter did a great job of reading out the poem, fitting it beautifully to the puppet’s actions. The puppeteers also added some noises and comments from time to time, and it all worked very well together. I particularly liked one occasion when one of the puppets looked at Harriet, not sure what to do, and she responded with a shrug. The music fitted in so well, I was often unaware of it, but I did enjoy what I heard.
It was such a complete experience that it’s hard to convey it in words. Little movements by the puppeteers gave such amazing performances from the puppets. Venus raising her head when Adonis is checking her vitals, for example, and Adonis holding his hands over his crotch after their romp, then pulling his tunic back into place. And Venus settling herself down to sleep, cradling her head on her arm. Lots of lovely moments, coming thick and fast, while the narration gives us the story. A great way to spend an hour.
© 2007 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me