Puppets: they pull all the wrong strings with some folk, inspiring the same degree of dread as mime and commedia dell'arte. But even those most militantly averse to this art form might find themselves enchanted by Venus and Adonis, an adaptation for marionettes of Shakespeare's youthful erotic poem, directed by Gregory Doran for the RSC.
Combining elements of the Jacobean masque and of Japanese bunraku puppetry, Venus and Adonis is presented at the exquisite Little Angel Theatre in Islington, located in the kind of magical, tucked-away passage where you expect to find Harry Potter buying wands. From the moment Venus flies on at the back of the deep, beautifully gilded miniature proscenium stage, in a lacquered conch shell drawn on ribbons by fluttering white doves, the show exerts a powerful spell.
Venus and Adonis is a sophisticated poem, alive to ridiculousness and the pathos of obsessive love, artfully weaving between slapstick and seriousness, the poignant and the near-pornographic. Shakespeare's main departure from his Ovidian source was in the treatment of the hero. In the Metamorphoses, Adonis returns the advances foisted on him by the goddess of love; in the Elizabethan poem, the hero becomes a bashful teenager, stiffly repudiating all of Venus's comically strenuous attempts to ravish him. It's possible that there is a homoerotic subtext, a tipping of the wink to the poem's 19-year-old dedicatee, the Earl of Southampton, who, in a charged Prologue, is seen receiving the book from the Bard while in female company.
There's a ceremonial formality to the proceedings, the stage flanked by the excellent narrator, Michael Pennington, who delivers the verse with an unforced feel for its rhetorical richness, and the fine guitarist Steve Russell, who infuses the show with an apt Elizabethan courtliness. With the lovely, doll-like puppets manipulated (bunraku-style) by four visible operators, this atmosphere of stylisation mirrors the self-conscious artifice of the poem, and, because the story is enacted by marionettes rather than actors, the teasing shifts between titillating close-up and mannered distancing are a droll pleasure rather than a source of awkwardness.
There are some satisfying coups de théâtre - as when Adonis's mighty horse thunders down the aisle and, snuffling hungrily round a mare, gives his master a pointed lesson in healthy male appetite. The boar that kills the hero is first seen in nightmare shadow-puppet play and then in all his tusked frightfulness. Most spectacular, two gigantic skeletal arms flop down from the sides of the stage and Venus, deludedly believing Adonis is still alive, frolics with them in gay abandon. A sobering, admonitory sight in a delightful piece.
To 6 November; then at The Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon, 10 November to 18 December (0870 609 1110)
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