Venus and Adonis

William Shakespeare
Royal Shakespeare Company and Little Angel Puppet Theatre
Swan, Stratford

Production photo

For those of a certain generation, the word 'puppet' unfailingly conjures up Pinky and Perky, Thunderbirds and all things Gerry Anderson. So much so that when I mentioned, in passing, to a friend that I was going to see a production of Venus and Adonis featuring puppets, the reaction was a snort of disbelieving laughter.

What he recalled was, what had seemed to be, the inherent mute stiffness of the form; the Douglas Bader walk, putting it, for sheer naffness, on a footing with mime - all that walking into a high wind. Iin reality, this only tells a fraction of the true story. In the right hands puppetry proves to be capable of undreamt of range and subtlety; well able, on a sixpence, to switch from petulance to pathos and broad comedy to grief.

For the purposes of this production, directed by the richly talented Gregory Doran, Shakespeare's lengthy epic poem is heavily cut to provide a show lasting an hour without interval. Five puppeteers, dressed in black but with their faces unmasked, manipulate a number of mannequins, some, the smaller, on strings, the larger ones not, as well as a number of silhouettes on sticks. The poem itself is read here, onstage by actress Harriet Walter, with accompaniment from guitarist Nicholas Lee, providing suitably Elizabethan-sounding music.

Designer Robert Jones creates a stage within a stage framed by a golden proscenium arch on which we first see Venus arrive in her chariot drawn by doves swiftly followed by Adonis on horseback. The action then swiftly transfers to the stage proper as the larger puppets, and their operators, make their entrance.

The thrust of the narrative is simple enough; Venus spots the beautiful youth Adonis out riding and is instantly - and hopelessly besotted. She drags him unceremoniously from his horse and urges congress. Adonis, however, is unmoved; he'd rather hunt, but Venus isn't so easily fobbed off and continues to pitch the woo with vigour but to no avail. Adonis' horse meanwhile is taken with a nearby filly and gallops off in pursuit leaving his fretful owner stuck. Still unimpressed by the attentions of the goddess he forgoes the pleasures of love to hunt wild boar, despite Venus' anguished warnings, and ends up gored fatally leaving her to curse love.

Though the verse is, of course, delivered beautifully by Walter, the evening is undoubtedly dominated by the visuals. There are many stunning moments, as when a pair of skeletal arms detach themselves from the proscenium arch and enfold Venus in the bony hands of Death, or our first glimpse of the humped and ferocious boar which is to prove the nemesis of Adonis. But is in the quieter moments that the play really impresses; in the hands of the Little Angel Theatre puppeteers Nele De Craecker, Roger Lade, Rachel Leonard, Lynn Robertson Bruce and Sarah Wright, directed by Steve Tiplady and Lyndie Wright, marionettes, so mute in the hands of others, come thrillingly to life. The production may be brief but it offers riches aplenty.

In short, a delight.

Transfers to The Little Angel Theatre from the 22 March - 28 April.

Reviewer: Pete Wood

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