Venus and Adonis | Bell Shakespeare CompanyVenus and Adonis marks the beginning of some new things for the Bell Shakespeare Company. Co-produced by Malthouse Theatre, this is the inaugural production of Mind’s Eye, Bell’s new development arm. Notably, it is also a production of one of Shakespeare’s great works, but rather than being a play, it is a sonnet. Comprising almost twelve hundred lines, Venus and Adonis is a perfect length for a one-act piece of theatre, translating to about an hour onstage. Given the sonnet’s basis in a narrative myth, one might think that dramatic adaptation would be straightforward, but this is not the approach taken by director Marion Potts and dramaturge Maryanne Lynch.

Not exactly a direct dramatisation so much as a dramatic exploration, you might be surprised by the method of delivery. Given that the famous sonnet concerns the encounter between Venus, Goddess of Love, and the handsome young human Adonis, one might have expected the cast of this two-hander to be portraying these titular characters. Not so. Instead, Potts and Lynch have taken the intriguing angle of having two actors portray Venus, Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior, while leaving the presence of Adonis to be created imaginatively, through a combination of either actor reporting his “lines” (although that is an awkward description of the poetry) to the other, and secondly though their own responses, entreaties and seductions of the boy being directed towards the audience itself, placing us in the position of Adonis. The techniques of delivery vary throughout the piece, with various methods of address employed by the two women who represent the Love Goddess.

It is difficult to say what exactly is the meaningful distinction between these two avatars of Venus. Perhaps they represent different aspects of her personality, the one at times more earthy and confident (Prior), the other more desperate and neurotic (Gray), yet this doesn’t seem altogether consistent. Similarly costumed and much alike in behavior (if not necessarily at the same moments), these two performers seem both separate and yet evidently cut from the same cloth, at times clearly interacting, at others off in their own worlds. This sense of being two sides of the same coin is reinforced by the set design, that of a hideous, vaguely 1960s hotel room that is clearly designed for a single occupant. Both women inhabit this space as though it is their own, fretting and primping over their slightly conservative yet equally sexy outfits, and rearranging their identical (but differently coloured) hairdos, which take the form of bizarrely voluminous, floor-length ponytails, like the tresses of some seductive yet dangerous gorgon.

What this costume and production design (by Anna Tregloan) seems to be driving at is a mix of the weird and the mundane, one suspects in response to the characterisation of Venus implicit in Shakespeare’s text. For all her notional godhood, Venus is a significantly human figure, and although she has the ability to restrain Adonis against his will, she is otherwise presented as being much the same as any lovestruck mortal woman. Or perhaps lovestruck taken to the Nth degree: today she’d probably be called a stalker! Her sentiments, however extreme, are recognisably human, those of a woman passionately and intemperately smitten. The production’s externalisation of this comes in the form of not only the mundane scenery but also in the distinctly modern performances.

And what performances they are! Varied, certainly. Unpredictable. Frequently very broad at times, even to the point of drastic overacting, although clearly done so on purpose. The term “desperate and dateless” springs to mind early on, with the dual Venus doing a lot of shtick involving hungrily running to see if anyone is arriving at the elevator to see her/them, and later a lot of hilariously awkward attempts at lewd seductiveness. With the actors doing a lot of business and throwing in the occasional “unscripted” word of exclamation, the production nevertheless contains a relatively comprehensive recitation of the sonnet’s text, but one that is densely interwoven with this complex, volatile performativity. Always centre stage, however, is the exploration of Venus’ love, lust, desire, desperation – her very human feelings. It is quite evident that this production is approaching the material as something of an examination of female sexuality, and we certainly run through a wide spectrum thereof, between the two Venuses and their laundry list of approaches to wooing Adonis.

Since bringing Shakespeare to life can sometimes be a challenge for actors even given the benefit of the inherently dramatic give-and-take of a play’s dialogue, Potts and her team’s ability to craft a theatrically viable piece of staging from the lines of a lyrical poem is admirable. Venus and Adonis contains many different levels of performance, from the bawdy to the earnest, the farcical and the heartbreaking, the spoken and the sung, aided by a musical trio occasionally revealed when the blinds are opened to reveal a forest beyond. Sound effects are also used to interesting effect, as well as a little multimedia. Indeed, the at times elusive and nuanced nature of this production are such that it is probably a good idea to have re-read the sonnet immediately beforehand in order to better absorb this engrossing and challenging treatment.

Bell Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis may be a little abstract for some, but it is a very entertaining and ultimately fascinating production that merits close attention. As the first offering of Bell’s Mind’s Eye imprimatur, if this is any indication of its quality let us hope it will be the first of many.

Malthouse Theatre & Bell Shakespeare present
Venus and Adonis
By William Shakespeare

Venue: Beckett Theatre | The CUB Malthouse, 113 Sturt Street Southbank, Victoria
Dates: April 11 - May 4

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