I think it should be reported that the RSC has revived Gregory Doran and Steve Tiplady’s conceptually brilliant rendering for the stage of Shakespeare’s cheeky, challenging poem Venus and Adonis for too few performances. Originally work-shopped with the Little Angel theatre in 2004, the inspiration for this production came from a visit that Greg Doran made to the home of Bunraku puppetry in Japan, where the dolls are about one third life size and are operated by three visible manipulators per puppet working in unison to often astonishing effect. In this case, the RSC team has created dolls (and lovely costumes) to represent not only Venus, Adonis, a boar, assorted doves and so forth as required by the story but also Shakespeare himself writing the poem, his possible love interest Henry Wriotheseley, the Earl of Southampton, to whom Shakespeare dedicated the poem (arguablyMr WH of the sonnets?) and even Elizabeth I. The puppet theatre itself is also evocative of a Tudor masque. Actress Suzanne Burden reads the entire poem that is being enacted conveying throughout real feeling for the tale and for the beautiful language. Nick Lee plays suitable music with great talent and warmth; and several talented puppeteers play out the story being told with astonishing skill. They create around an hour of compelling, entrancing theatre that engages the mind, the imagination and the emotions.
The body language that the puppeteers create for the puppets is extraordinarily accurate to what is happening throughout, eliciting laughter, astonishment and total concentration from the audience. You do not see puppets or the people manipulating the; you see the characters, and their reactions. And you are somehow provoked into imagining their acial expressions and seeing their expressions change.
Over and over again I have heard this production directed by Greg Doran being described as magical, and that sums it up. The design of the puppet stage and costumes by Robert Jones is extremely attractive; the lighting, by Vince Herbert is superbly controlled; and the presentation of death, in particular, with no eyes, striking out blindly in every direction, is a powerful image that will stay with you for a long time. Venus and Adonis themselves are very attractive puppets that seem almost human because of the skill with which they are manipulated. As Greg Doran explains in a programme note, “Venus and Adonis is by turns funny and tragic. It parodies the absurdities Love can lead us to, but it is also profoundly moving as the grieving Venus laments the death of Adonis.”
There are only a few performances of this revival; but I hope that word of mouth will lead to agitation for it to be done more and more often. And perhaps even filmed to a DVD release. Though I think it would also be a lovely introduction to Shakespeare’s erotic poem for secondary schools, and though it is a tale told through puppetry, it is definitely an interesting approach to a narrative poem and it is truly an event for grown-ups and a wonderful introduction not just to an important poem by Shakespeare but also to the real artistry that puppet theatre can achieve. It is indeed an exceptional piece of theatre and indubitably magical!