Venus and Adonis

Christopher Hunter, based on the poem by William Shakespeare
Alexander "Sandy" Marshall and Marmax Theatricles Ltd in association with Giles Cole and Close Quarter Productions
Riverside Studios, Hammersmith

Venus and Adonis

Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (written circa 1592) is known less than his plays: not so for his original readers whose fervour for this dramatic poem enabled reprints and instant fame for its author.

The poem’s roots are in classical myth, yet the tale is modern: an older woman falls in lust / love with a younger man (who isn’t interested) and makes a fool of herself with dire consequences—as often happens with emotional extremes.

Reading the poem can seem daunting. Welcome, then, to the magnificent actor / writer Christopher Hunter, whose one-man performance has garnered plaudits since its inception at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in 2017.

Having re-read the poem prior to reviewing, I could not imagine its recitation in the time frame suggested and envisioned a play about the writing of the poem—a fear seemingly confirmed on entry to the 200-seat, raked auditorium to find the actor sitting on a bench deep in thought and surrounded by strewn puffballs of discarded drafts (and programme notes stating "based on the poem by…")

But, fear not! This is Venus and Adonis proper, in a performance so captivating that even a mobile phone’s ring (we had been asked politely to switch off beforehand, but…) could not break the magic, and where a few judicious cuts bring the running time to just over 60 minutes.

It seems miraculous for one man to memorise and enact so many lines, but this is what happens in Hunter’s safe hands. Words, flat on the page, become a 3D picture in human form through his skill with diction and intonation, no doubt helped by Shakespeare’s lines of such rhythmic beauty that any actor might ache to say them (and some of which rehearse lines in the plays to come with which we may be more familiar). Hunter’s special gift is to make these words modernly-meaningful on first hearing, whilst retaining the Shakespearean spirit.

With the exception of the aforementioned bench, Hunter’s only props are a briefcase, paper and pen, handkerchief, necktie and a little make-up applied as he goes. With these few theatrical tools, he embodies all the poem’s personas, transcending age, gender and kind; even Adonis’s lovesick horse is vivified in Hunter’s joyful balletic gait.

It is a pleasing thing when one’s expectations are topped and especially pleasing—at a time when standing ovations can seem obligatory—to join in with one so very richly deserved. I could imagine a grateful ghostly Shakespeare somewhere in the audience thinking, "this is what I wrote and how I wanted it performed."

If you love Shakespeare’s poem, go: and if you think you won’t, go anyway, and perhaps be surprised.

Reviewer: Anita-Marguerite Butler

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