VENUS AND ADONIS
VENUS AND ADONIS, Sport for Jove in the Reginald at the Seymour Centre, 4-21 October 2023. Photography by Kate Williams: above Belinda Giblin and entertainers; below Adele Querol and Anthony Gooley; below again: Giblin’s QE1
Apparently, in January 2022 I wrote in Limelight magazine that SfJ’s Venus and Adonis was “a luscious, visual feast and a remarkable achievement.” What made it remarkable, in part, was that artistic director Damien Ryan had conjured out of the grim miasma of pandemic and lockdown a feature film in place of the canceled stage production of Shakespeare’s epic poem.
The film really was a luscious, visual feast, by the way. Shot in the garage downstairs from SfJ’s offices: black “earthen” floor, darkly draped walls, and mysteriously flickering golden candlelight. Lighting designer Sophie Parker achieves the same on stage in the Reginald’s black box: it’s chiaroscuro-au-go-go and utterly ravishing. A mix of firelight, candles, and subtly placed lamps burnishes naked flesh, glitters off earrings, flashes off finger rings, and gleams off velvet and sweat.
At first, partially glimpsed through a semi-transparent drape on which poetry in progress is projected, the action begins in London. There, life for a company of actors is as precarious as the Queen’s favour, a flare-up of one’s pox chancres, or the latest outbreak of plague. Plus ça change. Will Shakespeare (Anthony Gooley) is also up against rival playwrights, shifting moral standards, political minefields, and recalcitrant performers.
Chief among these difficult actors is Richard Burbage (Christopher Tomkinson), the Kenneth Branagh of his day; and leading “female” performer Nat Field (Jerome Meyer) who is outraged that Amelia Lanyer (Adele Querol), poet and mistress-muse of the Bard, is set to play Venus while he must relinquish his frocks for Adonis.
The “backstage” play is always fascinating – Noises Off, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern – and the machinations and squabbles around preparing to perform the new work for Queen Elizabeth I (Belinda Giblin) don’t disappoint. Neither does she when she makes her snippy, regal entrance. Beware your allocated seat and be ready to answer royal questions.
The play moves between London and Shakespeare’s semi-abandoned family in Stratford. There his wife Agnes/Anne/Annis (Bernadette Ryan) makes the best of one of history’s classic overlooked-helpmeet and fort-holder roles. Here she is revealed and speculated upon in much the same way as Amelia Lanyer. Whether apocryphal or merely unproven, these hypotheticals and “what-ifs” will send you out into the night with many questions and reasons to get Googling.
The wide-ranging sound design-score (Jay Cameron) adds as much colour and as many clues as the lighting and setting (Ryan designed the show and also directs). It makes for unusually absorbing theatre as the concentration of eyes and ears is a must: there is so much going on. For instance, in the second half, Venus and Adonis is being staged for the Queen with the hilariously half-arsed ineptitude of Pyramus and Thisbe in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Attention should be focused on the valiant players, however, so overdone are the performances and so clodhopping are the minor players, eyes might stray to the Queen. And there she is, quietly fidgeting, and looking bored and exasperated, clearly wishing to intervene and get it over and done with!
Ironically, like the film, which Limelight said was “overlong”, so is the stage version. At 165 minutes it could be trimmed of 20 without damaging its cadences and verbal treasury. Nevertheless, the company – Ava Madon, Akasha Hazard, Kevin MacIsaac, Oliver Ryan, Max Ryan, Dinitha Senevirathne, and Liv Rey Laaksonen – flesh out the comedy, tragedy, historical liberty-taking and drama of Shakespeare’s great poem.
Nevertheless, it’s the principals: Anthony Gooley, Adele Querol, Belinda Giblin, Christopher Tomkinson, and Jerome Meyer, who breathe life and fire into the piece and make it memorable. It’s over-ambitious and all the better for that. To reach for the stars is a much more rewarding experience than to be safe. Recommended without reservation.