Venus and Adonis

William Shakespeare, adapted by Greogory Doran
RSC/Little Angel Theatre at the Other Place, Stratford-upon-Avon
(2004)

Production photograph

Many people in Britain would be astonished to learn that throughout Europe and Asia puppetry is a highly-regarded form of drama for adults, not a children's entertainment. The very word puppet tends to conjure up visions of Punch and Judy, Sooty and Thunderbirds, so it comes as something of a shock to be confronted with Greg Doran's "masque for puppets" - an adaptation of Shakespeare's Venus and Adonis inspired by the Bunraku puppet theatre of Japan. Many years ago I had the pleasure of seeing these exquisite puppets enact a play culminating in the Romeo and Juliet style suicides of the protagonists, so I was eager to see this co-production between the RSC and the Little Angel Theatre. I was not disappointed - Venus and Adonis is sixty minutes of pure delight, without doubt one of the most beautiful and unusual shows I've ever seen.

The masque is preceded by a delightful scene in which Shakespeare (already suffering from severe hair loss!) presents his poem to the androgynous young Southampton, who seems more interested in dancing with a court lady than accepting the bard's verses. The prologue out of the way, Michael Pennington narrates the tragic-comic tale of Venus' obsessive and unrequited love for the unresponsive Adonis. The goddess, in marionette form, descends from the clouds in a shell-shaped carriage drawn by "two strengthless doves" and reappears in the form of an ingeniously manipulated tabletop puppet, a mixture of styles that is used throughout the production (shadow puppets also feature to great effect).

The smallest gestures of the puppets are so beautifully observed and imitated that it is hard to believe these little people aren't real. Venus uses her super-human strength to drag Adonis off his horse, he primly removes her wandering hand from his thigh, she faints theatrically and sneaks a peek to make sure that Adonis is paying attention. Even the animals have distinct personalities - when Pennington lists the sterling qualities of Adonis' stallion the creature shows off outrageously, beaming at the audience and flicking his tail. Such is the skill of the puppeteers (Michael Bayliss, Rachel Leonard, Lynn Robertson Bruce, Sarah Wright and Nele de Craecker) that after the first few minutes we barely notice their existence.

All credit too to designer Robert Jones. Most of the action takes place within a ravishing miniature theatre, the façade of which cleverly conceals the skeletal figure of Death. The sudden emergence of a golden skull and two enormously long arms is a stunning coup de theatre; when Venus fools herself into believing that Adonis cannot be dead she swings ecstatically from Death's giant hand, an unforgettable image.

Not least of Doran's achievements is the fact that in spite of the production's many visual delights Shakespeare's words never fade into second place - the stage pictures are generated by the text, never imposed on it. I have to confess that although I'm a devotee of Shakespeare's plays I haven't looked at the narrative poems for years. Michael Pennington's beautifully-spoken narration was a revelation to me, and I'll lay odds that many a dusty volume of Venus and Adonis will be taken down from the shelves by delighted playgoers.

Reviewer: J. D. Atkinson