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Venus and Adonis

The Evening Standard, 19th October 2004, Fiona Mountford

An evening in the company of puppets would not have been my first choice, but then I had not visited the Little Angel before. This estimable venue, in turn, had never previously collaborated with the Royal Shakespeare Company. Yet, what a fruitful partnership this seemingly unlikely combination has produced.

After the disappointment of its recent New Work Festival, the RSC has come up trumps with Gregory Doran’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s early mythological-erotic poem. It has also unearthed a new star in the puppet Venus, a sultry young foot-high temptress with a low-cut chiffon dress, artfully dishevelled tresses and a tendency to stamp her padded silken foot with impetuosity. She should be auditioned forthwith for Juliet or Ophelia.

Doran, who also directs, took as his initial inspiration the world of Japanese Bunraku puppets. Working with director of puppetry Steve Tiplady, he has chosen not only these traditional table top puppets, but also a host of specially crafted marionettes, rod and shadow figures. Together they present the tale of the demandingly lovelorn goddess (“She’s Love, she loves, and yet is not loved”) and the petulant youth who disastrously chooses boar-hunting over romance.

Michael Pennington, seated to the right of the tiny stage, mellifluously narrates the poem and guitarist Steve Russell adds accompaniment, a team of five black-clad puppeteers manipulate the models with incredible dexterity and exquisite precision. It is not customary to witness an audience of adults – the work is not recommended for anyone under 14 – remain open-mouthed with wonder; but this they did when the lovers’ long-postponed kiss caused Venus and Adonis to float up into the air.

There are similar moments of marvel when the goddess arrives in her seashell of a chariot drawn by silver doves, and when Adonis’s magnificent jointed horse canters down the central aisle in pursuit of a fine filly. This passageway is also used by the fearsome beast of a bloody jowled boar, courtesy of whom Adonis meets his grisly end.

All credit to the RSC for such a surprising and successful piece of programming.

Metro, 20th October 2004, CA

Islington’s Little Angel Theatre is usually associated with children’s puppet theatre. Yet there is no reason why puppets can’t also appeal to adults, as Gregory Doran’s production of Shakespeare’s erotic love poem in collaboration with the RSC, resolutely proves.

Accompanied by Steve Russell’s opulent guitar chords, Michael Pennington narrates the tragedy of Venus and her Adonis, who fatefully chooses hunting over making love. Two Japanese bunraki marionettes, three enormous animal puppets, all manipulated by four puppeteers, perform it on the tiny stage. The effect is enchanting.

Part of the production’s challenge is to evoke Venus’s sensual lust for her recalcitrant object of desire with inanimate pieces of wood. In these expert hands, however, Venus, with her flowing tresses and the half-naked Adonis become fluid figures; the expression of their erotic attraction exceeding the bounds of conventional acting when, with their first proper kiss, they float blissfully up into the air. There is plenty of wit, too, for instance in Venus’s frustrated little strops.

There is no deceit in puppetry: the mechanics of the performance are entirely visible. This clear sense of collective endeavour compounds the joy of this excellent production, but there’s a special magic, too.

Daily Mail, 20th October 2004, Quentin Letts

When it comes to this year’s acting awards, I hope they’ll consider the two puppets which star in this astonishing dramatisation of Shakespeare’s rueful epic poem about love.

The show, co-produced by the Royal Shakespeare Company, lasts for 70 minutes.

By the end I was so wrapped up with bosomy Venus and her curly-haired beau that it was a surprise not to have them come on for the curtain call, along with their human operators.

Their performances here are far more realistic than several human actors I’ve seen in the past couple of weeks.

An entire evening of puppetry will not immediately appeal to all theatregoers. Be bold, however. The craftsmanship shown her is of the highest level, as is the honey-rich narration by Michael Pennington.

Musical accompaniment on the guitar is by Steve Russell.

I must confess that I knew little about this 1593 poem, which catches Shakespeare in a courtly but erotic mood.

Indeed, the puppets get up to some pretty heavy-duty groping, at times so explicit that it feels almost voyeuristic to watch these two inanimate objects having hanky-panky. Far sexier than any embrace in a Charlton Heston film, I tell you. Don’t bring children. Staged in a lovely little puppet theatre in Islington, this show is not exactly easygoing.

It’s hard work concentrating both on the brilliance of the puppet’s work and on Shakespeare’s words. But it’s worth it.

Venus arrives in a chariot shaped from a seashell.

She has a Dolly Parton cleavage and when she claps eyes on the ‘rose-cheeked Adonis’ she declares that her marrow is burning, her juices flowing.

She taps a stroppy foot in impatience when he plays hard-to-get.

Eventually they kiss and the scene is a delight, Venus’s body floating heavenwards and Adonis rising in her wake. Much the same process is repeated by a couple of horses – truly magical puppetry turns two leather-covered frames into a couple of snorting steeds, the stallion biting at the flies around his head.

If you miss it in London, see this when it transfers to Stratford for Christmas.

The Daily Telegraph, 20th October 2004, Dominic Cavendish

Few words are more likely to bring me out in hives than the words ‘adult puppetry’.

There are some fine exponents of the form in Britain, but I still have hideous flashbacks to the mid-90s when, in a fit of reckless enthusiasm, I rushed to embrace the phenomenon of ‘live animation’ only to watch people old enough to know better inviting me to suspend disbelief at enactments children would wince at.

One show in particular involved, dread memory, giant plastic babies, flown this way and that. What the performers presumably thought of a wordless wonderment looked to me to be simply dumb.

So I can hardly say I was leaping up and down with joy at the prospect of seeing Shakespeare’s great erotic poem Venus and Adonis brought to miniaturised life in a unique collaboration between the RSC and Little Angel Theatre, the self-styles ‘home of British puppetry’, situated a stone’s throw from the Almeida in a converted temperance hall.

Gregory Doran, who conceived the project, was apparently inspired by a visit to the Bunraku Puppet Theatre in Osaka during the RSC tour of Japan, my initial reaction to which was: best leave it to the Japanese, Greg.

How nice to be proved entirely wrong. This enchanting, hour-long presentation, subtitled “A Masque for Puppets”, works brilliantly because it completely understands the poem and treats its adult themes with just the right degree of mature reverence and playful innovation.

Venus and Adonis is constructed round a series of satisfying contrasts between artful rhetoric and unadorned nature, between chaste restraint and lustful abandonment. The story – of a goddess sent wild with desire for a pretty young man, then mad with grief when he’s gored to death by a boar – could hardly be simpler, yet the emotions bound up within the myth are highly complex.

As Doran and puppet director Steve Tiplady have realised, with its innate combination of simplicity and intricacy, its ability to conjure both the most restrained, impassive form of ‘acting’ there is an unselfconscious excess when required, puppetry can bring out these contrasts brilliantly.

The task of speaking the verse has been given to that Shakespearean veteran Michael Pennington, who sits to one side of a dinky proscenium-arch theatre, looking, with its gilded pillars and fretwork, like the model of an architectural extravagance by Inigo Jones.

There’s a cute bit of business during the dedication, involving a Lilliputian-sized representation of the Bard handing a copy of the poem to the adored Earl of Southampton, before Venus arrives in a shell-shaped chariot pulled by tiny doves, and sees Adonis bounding towards her on a proud steed.

The production magnifies the detail of the verse, picking up on its comic potential while keeping a keen eye on the looming tragedy. What’s astonishing is how nuanced the puppets’ physical language is: the slightest tilting of a head or neck speaks volumes.

The four unobtrusive puppeteers dexterously heighten the disparity between the highly predatory female and the woodenly inert boy-wonder: Venus, a lily-white beauty, about 2ft high, dripping blond curls, smothers the tanned, bare-chested Adonis with kisses. At the words “My flesh is soft and plump”, she presents her rump, and gives him a peeved whack on the line, “Art thou obdurate, flinty, hard as steel?”

When her beloved reluctantly responds to her advances, they embrace, their feet rising off the floor in a moment of surreal bliss. You’re not no much erotically stirred as inexplicably moved. It’s bewitching stuff; let’s have more of it.

The Times, 20th October 2004, Sam Marlowe

In Bunraku, Japan’s sophisticated puppet theatre, the manipulators who bring the dolls uncannily to life are shrouded in black, but constantly visible to the audience.

So bewitching is this RSC production by Gregory Doran, with puppetry direction by Steve Tiplady, of the Little Angel Theatre, that you often forget that they are there.

Tiplady has worked with Improbably Theatre Company, and Venus and Adonis, which blends bunraku with Jacobean Court Masque, is distinguished with the same breathtaking invention that characterises the best of that company’s work.

It is married here to Michael Pennington’s beautifully modulated narration of Shakespeare’s poem of love and loss – and the effect is irresistible.

Robert Jones’s set is a gilt miniature proscenium, topped by the celestial bodies of he Ptolemaic system. On the tiny stage, to an accompaniment of acoustic guitar, intricate puppets designed by a team of six enact Venus’s descent to Earth, her wooing of Adonis, a beautifully but cruelly indifferent youth, and her despair when he is killed by a wild boar on a hunting expedition.

The tale allows the puppetry ample scope to charm and amaze. Horses gallop up and down the aisle, the boar with its alarmingly large tusks lumbers menacingly about and Venus’s chariot, a golden conch, is drawn by a flock of exquisite fluttering doves. There’s even an ingenious appearance by Death itself, as the golden orb above the stage pivots to become a skull and huge hands with long fingers descend to clasp Venus in their bony grip.

But it is its moments of intimacy and emotional subtlety that the show impresses the most. Venus, in a gauzy costume that shows off to saucy advantage her perfectly formed belly button, is a skilled seductress.

When she tries, in turn, to win Adonis’s love with flirty femininity, lustful abandon and imperious command, it is striking not only how timeless Shakespeare’s evocation of the bliss and torment of passion seems – just as it does in many of the plays that he was to write later – but also how intensely erotic it is, too.

As the lines “Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry, / Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie” are spoken, the puppet sensually caresses her own body.

The sequence culminates, as Venus finally wins Adonis’s physical capitulation, with the couple rising upwards, entwined, airborne by ecstasy.

And that’s pretty much how you feel after watching it. It’s just an hour long, but Venus and Adonis leaves you sated with loveliness. Pure pleasure.

The Guardian, 20th October 2004, Michael Billington

I have been allergic to puppets ever since a school trip to a marionette version of a Mozart opera at the age of 11. But I have been totally cured thanks to this witty, erotic and ingenious version of Shakespeare’s poem conceived by Gregory Doran, which represents a unique alliance between the RSC and the inherited artistry of Islington’s Little Angel Theatre.

Doran was inspired by a visit to Japan’s Bunraku Puppets, but what he has done is adapt an oriental form to English conditions. So Michael Pennington sits to one side of Robert Jones’s magnificent, miniaturised baroque proscenium reading Shakespeare’s poem. Steve Russell sits to the other side providing guitar music, meanwhile the four black-garbed puppeteers – faces exposed in contravention of Bunraku tradition – operate the characters, who acquire a mysterious life of their own.

What one discovers is the imaginative freedom puppetry provides. Thus Venus, whose mission is to seduce the hunting-mad Adonis, arrives in a shell-shaped chariot drawn by a team of doves. She also becomes a voracious vamp who leaps into Adonis’s arms and wraps her legs firmly around his neck. But puppetry’s ability to suit the action to the word is richly demonstrated when Shakespeare says of the frenziedly kissing protagonists, “incorp’rate then they seem”, as the intertwined bodies of Venus and Adonis float erotically upwards.

Although Doran has cut the poem down to a manageable hour’s length, I was sorry we didn’t get more about the “dew-bedabbled” hare who “cranks and crosses” through the countryside. But there is compensation in the sight of the frothy-mouthed boar rampaging up the aisle. And death is vividly personified as a figure with spindly, prehensile arms and claw-like mitts into which Venus vainly leaps to plead for the life of her beloved.

Pennington reads the poem with loving care. But the ultimate justifications for the show is that it uses puppetry to convey both the poem’s masque-like spectacle and sheer sexiness. Under the guidance of Doran and the director of puppetry, Steve Tiplady, it offers one of the most brilliantly original entertainments in London. And at the end I felt like crying, like Ben Jonson’s puppet-prosecuting Zeal-of-the-Land Busy: “I am changed and will become a beholder with you.”

The Independent, 21st October 2004, Paul Taylor

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 in 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 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.

The Sunday Times, 24th October 2004, Victoria Segal

By comparison, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Venus and Adonis (Little Angel Puppet theatre) is so archaically quaint, it makes Bagpuss look like a manga film. Directed by Gregory Doran, it is a marginal work in a marginal medium; yet it’s magical, this mix of marionettes, shadow puppets and bunraku (where the gifted operators are visible), while Michael Pennington’s narration is as beautifully musical as Steve Russell’s guitar accompaniment.

The Observer, 24th October 2004, Geraldine Bedell

Quirky and charming, the Royal Shakespeare Company’s performance, with puppets, of the poem Venus and Adonis is a surprising delight. In the intimate surroundings of the Little Angel Theatre, Michael Pennington reads the poem richly and John Woolf evokes the courtly masque with his atmospheric guitar playing, but the real stars are the puppets.

These are mainly hand-held (although marionettes appear in the prologue and shadow puppets in the hunting scenes) and it seems incredible that their facial expressions are unchanging, so characterful are they. Venus is a wonder: ethereal and earthy, woman and fairie, cheeky ad bewitching, a bit of a handful whose pertness shifts gear into suffering.

You can do rude with puppets in a way that you can’t with people. (The poem is about a seduction, then about male ability to commit; Adonis prefers hunting boar to kissing his new girlfriend, even if she is the goddess of love.) In puppet theatre, you can have horses on stage and wild boar and chariots pulled by songbirds. This production, by Gregory Doran, with Steve Tiplady the director of puppetry, is the first collaboration between the RSC and the puppeteers of the Little Angel. But it left me thinking there are other dramatic poems that would benefit from this treatment.

The Mail on Sunday, 24th October 2004, Georgina Brown

Venus and Adonis is one of Shakespeare’s lesser known works, a raunchy, erotic poem about the comedy and tragedy of love, the story of goddess Venus who is besotted with the drop-dead-gorgeous Adonis.

He prefers hunting, but he finally gives in, only to be savaged by a wild boar. Broken-hearted Venus curses love forever.

A simple tale, which the Royal Shakespeare Company’s terrifically talented director, Greg Doran, has brought to magical life in, of all the most unlikely things, a puppet show, staged in a tiny, gilded, candle-lit set.

There’s not a more original, more exquisitely beautiful, more entrancing show to be seen in London today, as spectacular, if in miniature, as The Lion King, which also uses puppets to marvellous effect.

Doran was inspired by seeing Bunraku puppets in Japan, creatures carried and operated by manipulators, but the show also incorporates marionettes and shadow puppets.

In this enchanting theatre, a team, dressed in black, working in quiet, calm, intensely choreographed unison, miraculously imbue each one of the dolls – including horses that gallop down the aisle – with a compelling life of their own.

They also create the sound effects, the squealing boar, the baying hounds, the snorting horses, while Michael Pennington narrates with his customary mellifluousness. An acoustic guitarist provides a suitably Elizabethan accompaniment.

Venus flies down to Earth in her chariot, a gilded shell drawn by two silver doves. With her hour-glass figure and hair of spun gold, she’s every inch a sex-goddess in no more than a floaty excuse of a frock.

Adonis is a pretty, petulant youth, not remotely interested in playing the toy boy for this nymphomaniac vamp who pulls him off his horse, kisses him all over, sobs, hangs on to his leg like a child and eventually jumps up into his arms and won’t let go.

This is the comic, histrionic side of love and lust, powerfully captured.

When Adonis finally submits, the two lovers are blissfully, suspended in an ecstatic embrace above the stage.

Then tragedy strikes. Death is vividly evoked: a glistening skull with skeleton arms, whose cold embrace Venus endures for Adonis’s life. In vain. Ravishing, in every sense.

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