Review: Venus & Adonis ~ theatre notes

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Review: Venus & Adonis

Venus & Adonis by William Shakespeare, directed by Marion Potts. Set and costumes by Anna Tregloan, lighting design by Paul Jackson, composition by Andrée Greenwell, sound design by David Franzke. With Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior, music performed by Ben Hauptmann, David Hewitt and Ryan Williams. Malthouse Theatre and Bell Shakespeare, @ The Beckett, CUB Matlhouse, until May 4. Bookings: 9685 5111

Reading the scholars on Shakespeare can sometimes be unexpectedly diverting. F.T. Prince, who edited the Arden edition of Shakespeare’s poems, remarks of his early poem Venus and Adonis that “few English or American readers nowadays will respond to such happily wanton fancies”.

Prince says that this explains why, for all its artistic success, Venus and Adonis is considered a lesser achievement in the Shakespearean canon. How times change. It is precisely this pagan lubriciousness that makes it seem so fresh and vigorous in the 21st century.

The poem is based on an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the goddess of love, Venus, takes the beautiful Adonis as her first mortal lover, before he is killed in a hunting accident. Shakespeare’s innovation was to make Adonis spurn Venus’s advances.

The poem becomes a dramatic paean to erotic desire, frustration and sorrow. Its melding of delicate rhetoric and blunt colloquialism, forged in an urgent poetic vision, presages Shakespeare’s later plays. Marion Potts’ stunning theatrical adaptation, Venus & Adonis, joyously celebrates Shakespeare’s Elizabethan frankness and the sensual eloquence and wit of his language.

As in the poem, the dominant voice is that of womanly passion, amplified through the two performers who play the part of Venus, Melissa Madden Gray (best known by her cabaret nom de plume Meow Meow) and Susan Prior.

Adonis is the audience, whom these performers must seduce. And although the hero remains elusive, we become putty in Venus’s four hands as she finds herself suspended in torment between animal lust and divine love.

Madden Gray and Prior pant, writhe, plead and weep as they prowl around a luxurious 1970s-style hotel room. Anna Tregloan’s stage, gorgeously lit by Paul Jackson, is enclosed in a curtained, low-roofed box. At the back is another curtain which opens to reveal the band playing behind a barred window amid a riot of tropical plants.

The performance moves from self-conscious displays of seduction – the offering of the body, or comically staged tantrums and tears – to a profound enactment of the anguish and ecstasy of love.

This is in no small part due to Andrée Greenwell’s exquisite score, which sets some of the verses to subtly updated Elizabethan harmonies that take full advantage of the vocal talents of the actors. When fused with the opulent artistry of Shakespeare’s language, it creates moments of sheerly bewitching beauty.

Here, as Shakespeare said in a later play, is indeed “art to enchant”.

Picture: Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior in Venus & Adonis. Photo: Jeff Busby

This review was published in today's Australian. There's much more to say about this production, but I don't have time to say it; I'm off to Sydney today after a Very Important Interview this morning (of which, I hope, more later), and hoping like hell life returns to what passes for normal next week.


st genesius said...

Thank you for such a well-written analysis of Marion Potts' work. She seems to have an intelligent and innovative approach to Shakespeare, which bodes well for her upcoming "Hamlet." Having not seen that play since Belvoir did it about ten years ago, I look forward to it.

Anonymous said...

Nice chatting with you last night at the Drama theatre Alison.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks St Genesius - though I feel it's a bit inadequate, it's such an interesting show and made me think about the whole notion of doing poetry in theatre - very difficult, I think, and beautifully realised here, because although it was always theatre, it was also always still a poem. Maybe I'll find the mental space to expand these thoughts a little, but first I'm getting some sleep - which as anon knows (hellooo!) - I deeply need by now...