Venus and Adonis: A Masque for Puppets; directed by Gregory Doran for the Royal Shakespeare Company in collaboration with Little Angel Theatre at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. July 26, 27, & 28, 2017
Reviewed by Justin B. Hopkins, Franklin and Marshall College
In 2007, I attended the RSC’s collaboration with Little Angel Theatre on Venus and Adonis. The performance astonished me with its beautiful blend of humor, sensuality, and pathos, as well as the uniquely evocative aesthetic of the puppetry. Rarely have I so thoroughly enjoyed an hour in the theatre. At the time, I wrote, “they animate these mythical beings with such fervor, such nuance, such spirit.”
Ten years later, when I heard of the upcoming revival, I scrambled to book transatlantic travel and seats at as many performances as I could. I managed three, and for extra measure, I spent several hours in the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust archives, perusing the recordings of the 2007 and original 2004 productions.
Here, I wish simply to share observations about how the production has changed through the years, which differences will also hopefully illustrate what has worked so well in all its manifestations.
First, however, a basic description of what happened feels necessary. Sitting on-stage, a narrator read the poem, accompanied by a guitarist, while five puppeteers animated the story of the goddess’s erotic pursuit of the young, reluctant hunter. Venus and Adonis were Bunraku-style puppets, the former crafted out of supple foam and leather, the latter carved from wood. Horses and boar, deer, dogs and Wat the Hare appeared too, as well as “Death,” emerging from the ornate set, the central globe spinning into a skull, and skeletal arms spreading out of the proscenium. Also, a rod puppet of Shakespeare joined by marionettes of Queen Elizabeth and the Earl of Southampton acted the poem’s dedication.
Now, how had the production changed between 2007 and 2017?
All action seemed smoother and even more nuanced. For example, Venus’s plucking of Adonis from his horse and flinging him to the ground, which had been a tad clunky in 2007, now flowed like an un-cliché simile. Then, as they later embraced, watching carefully, you could see the youth’s legs shake as he grew more and more excited under the goddess’s ministrations, until, after an enormous shudder, they subsided and stilled. I had made no note of any such subtlety in 2007, nor is it visible in the recording, though the quality of the video is admittedly not superb. Still, I am confident that detail of Adonis’s climax was new.
Adonis’s vocal ejaculations also, provided by the puppeteers, had grown more fervent yet. They had kept his loud “Ha!” on “love he laughed to scorn” (4), and his “Ahem” as Venus ran her hands over his body, pausing to fondle a knee, then groping higher before he halted her. But they also added at least one “Oh!” of disgust as he “winks, and turns his lips another way” (90), and indeed, on the first night, some of the many “Oh’s” of revulsion came out as “God!” The invocation seemed out of place—the wrong gender, at least, given the circumstances—and I was glad subsequent performances returned to less explicit expletive.
The animals’ behavior also had evolved with still more spirit. In 2007, as the narrator described the manifold attractions of Adonis’s horse, the tawny mare surveilled from down-stage, and my focus was completely on the comic posturing of the stallion as he relished the praise. In 2017, the mare stood just behind and to his side, clearly visible, and she paid active, appreciative attention, flicking and shaking her own at his “thick mane, thick tail” and snorting loudly at “broad buttock” (298) to loud laughter from the audience.
In 2007, Wat the Hare’s full-fledged puppet was introduced, following a suggestion by Michael Billington in his 2004 review. Now, after scurrying down and across the stage, he actually scampered over the legs and laps of the audience members in the front row—a charming addition, at least as far as I can recall (or tell from the video). Bold bunny!
Before, the Boar received a tensely strummed solo to accentuate his fearful appearance, until, annoyed, he turned and glared at guitarist Nicholas Lee, whose playing petered off, silenced by the beast. Now no such exchange occurred, and I missed it.
Apart from this unfortunate omission, I must note, Lee’s accompaniment was just as stirring as a decade ago.
Harriet Walter’s splendid narration in 2007 would be a hard act to follow (not to mention Michael Pennington’s, from 2004), but Suzanne Burden more than met the challenge. Overall, I heard a slightly edgier quality in her reading of Venus. For example, unlike Walter, Burden emphasized the double entendre of Mars’s hanging of his “lance” over Venus’s “altars” (103), prompting scattered, salacious giggles. Also, Burden’s rendition of the goddess’s appellation of Adonis—“Love’s master” (585)—was more sultry and suggestive than Walter’s tentative reverence. Likewise Burden’s forceful prodding, “Shall we meet tomorrow?/Say, shall we? Shall we?” (585-586), compared to Walter’s playfully imploring tone, and the puppeteers matched those tones with fitting gestures: nudging in 2007, shoving in 2017.
Finally, and most poignantly, in the penultimate stanza, Burden turned and directly addressed Venus before the goddess’s exit: “There shall not be one minute in an hour/Wherein I will not kiss my sweet love’s flower” (1187-1188). Their communion was palpable, and in these last moments, I noticed one more element I had not until then. The only returning puppeteer from 2007 (and 2004) was Rachel Leonard, and while it is entirely possible I just didn’t catch it in 2007, now I was struck by her poignant facial expressions while guiding the puppets, especially Venus, and especially at the end. All the other puppeteers remained neutral, but Rachel’s sorrow as Venus mourned was very visible. Far from distracting, I felt it added to the grief, investing it with yet another layer.
I wonder whether this production will receive still another revival, and whether I will be able to attend again. I hope so, and I hope it may be in less than ten years. I suspect the fervor, nuance, and spirit of this magnificent work is far from exhausted.
Listen to Justin’s audio description of his response to the play here.
Company websites: https://www.rsc.org.uk/
The views expressed in this post are the author’s own.
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