Venus & Adonis | Bell Shakespeare & Malthouse Theatre

Venus & Adonis | Bell Shakespeare & Malthouse TheatreLeft - Susan Prior and Melissa Madden Gray. Cover - Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior. Photos - Jeff Busby

This romantic epic poem, based on a story from Ovid’s Metamorphoses about the Roman Goddess of Love, Venus and her mortal lover, Adonis, is a cautionary reminder that with great love comes terrible pain. 

On this occasion, Venus is trying to seduce Adonis, but nothing she can do interests him. Instead, despite her protestations, Adonis goes hunting and is fatally gored by a wild boar, leaving the distraught Venus to curse love forevermore.

In Marion Pott’s imaginative, cleverly directed but ultimately flawed production, there are two Venuses (Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior) and we, the audience, take the part of the intractable Adonis. Both Madden Gray and Prior give strong, dynamic performances. Their feisty, comic physicality is assured as is their emotional range. Both actors possess a commanding presence and bring a refreshing clarity to the language.

The sections of the poem that are sung are the highlights of the production. Madden Gray’s and Prior’s clear, mellow voices harmonise gorgeously. Madden Gray’s deep honeyed resonance compliments Prior’s sweet, higher register. They are supported by a live ensemble (Bree Van Reyk, Felicity Clark and Michael Sheridan), housed upstage in a tropical garden, which plays composer Andee Greenwell’s beautiful, mostly medieval style, score.

Despite the production’s many obvious strengths, there is an overriding problem. Marion Potts uses a burlesque cabaret style to depict Venus as wanton, lusty and bawdy. The problem is that this choice of concept is incongruous and at odds with the text, which is beautiful, sexy, funny and ultimately, poignant. Why is powerful female sexuality so often depicted negatively, as voracious and slutty?

Shakespeare’s Venus has an assertive and playful sexuality. She is, in many ways, a thoroughly modern depiction of female sexuality. Marion Potts’ Venuses, however, evoke sad old prostitutes confined in their tawdry set: a cheap 1960s style motel room with bars on the window (designed by Anna Tregloan). 

They are dressed in ugly, dowdy, yet low cut and high slit dresses. Their floor length, dry, matted hair extensions suggest better days. They look more like Harpies or Medusa than the Goddess of Love. The two Venuses spread their legs, strut, writhe and pant in a thoroughly ugly and alienating parody of female sexuality.

There is nothing at all sexy about them. The overt portrayal of their sexuality, while comic, has a distancing effect. In the 1970s Anne Summers discussed the puritanical Australian attitude to female sexuality in Damned Whores and God’s Police. This production suggests we have still not matured. It is as if the director is afraid to express a genuine assertive and playful sexuality and has masked it behind this bawdy parody. Is it too hard to be genuinely sexy?

Shakespeare’s language is rich with metaphor, paradox, humour and eroticism and offers a strong text to dramatise. This production could have been so much better if the text had been allowed to speak for itself instead of trying to turn it into something it is not. While the direction is strong and the performances highly entertaining, the powerful, mercurial and sexy Venus was never meant to pace the floor in a low rent bordello.

Sydney Theatre Company presents a Bell Shakespeare and Malthouse Melbourne co-production
by William Shakespeare
Director Marion Potts

Venue: Wharf 2, Sydney Theatre Company, The Wharf, Pier 4, Hickson Road
Dates: 11 – 28 February 2009
Opens: Friday 13 February at 8.15pm
Times: Mondays - Saturdays 8.15pm
Bookings: 9250 1777

Related Articles

Richard 3 | Bell Shakespeare Richard 3 | Bell Shakespeare
Bell Shakespeare’s latest production of Richard 3 is something of a jumble. An uninspired staging of one of the great plays of the canon, redeemed if not entirely rescued by the strong central...
Power Plays | Sydney Theatre Company Power Plays | Sydney Theatre Company
Power Plays is an entertaining exercise in short-form theatremaking along a centralised theme, even if none of the individual pieces are especially memorable. Photo – James GreenWriting short...

Most read Sydney reviews

Broadway Bound | New Theatre

The third in the trilogy that began with Brighton Beach Memoirs and continued with Biloxi Blues,...

The Wild Party | Little Triangle

A sound mix mess spoils the party in a cacophony of screech and bellow and a crowded...

Artaserse | Pinchgut Opera

We were led to expect great things from Vivica, and we were not disappointed.

The 11th Mullum Music Festival

As we drive from the Byron Hinterland to Mullumbimby on Thursday evening, my muso-partner and I...

Concert One & Two | Staatskapelle Berlin

It is difficult to describe the performances in his cycle of Brahms symphonies. I was...

Sign up for our newsletter

* indicates required