This exciting, moving, and thought-provoking adaptation of Shakespeare’s narrative poem opens with a theatre within a theatre, the ornate gilt proscenium in miniature glowing in the blackness of the Civic Theatre. The puppets are about a third life size, according to Gregory Doran’s programme notes, and their smallness and that of the set contributes to a feeling of a magical vignette into the otherworldly that persists for the duration of the production.
Most astonishing is the aliveness of the Bunraku puppets representing Venus and Adonis. The play also includes marionettes (puppets with strings) and shadow puppets, seen swooping behind a screen upstage, but it is the main characters’ expressive and fluent movements that imbue them with personalities of their own – one might even imagine changing facial expressions – as they are manipulated by a black-clad team.
In Japan, the home of Bunraku puppetry, the manipulators cover their heads and faces in black as well as the rest of their body, but in this production the manipulators’ faces are visible throughout. Their faces seem to channel the emotions the puppets are feeling and they also vocalise for the characters (human and animal) at points throughout the performance, sighing or crying out alongside the narration.
It is in the intimacy between puppet, manipulator, and narrator that the play is most compelling. The puppets’ liveliness and seeming humanity, on the one hand, and the manipulators’ large dark presence behind them directing their actions, on the other hand, suggest the poignancy of human desire and our striving for self-determination amidst external forces so integral we don’t even notice them. Such forces are sometimes mysterious as in the second part of the performance when – to the collective gasp of the audience – the stage set itself transforms and takes up an uncomprehending Venus. When Adonis’s immobile dead body is tenderly picked up by his manipulator and carried away, there is a true feeling of loss and mortality.
Towards the end of the play Venus searches in the woodland for Adonis and the narrator describes her worried cries resounding in a “choir of echoes”: “’Ay me!’ she cries, and twenty times ‘Woe, woe!’ / And twenty echoes twenty times cry so”. In a fundamental sense, it is a production characterised by echoes, multiplication, and layers. This unfurls on the level of the performance, with the accompanying guitarist to one side of the stage and the narrator to the other, looking the part of a storyteller with her stack of books and comfortable chair, the proscenium structure in the centre with its elevated stage and a kind of detached thrust stage behind which the manipulators stand and move, and the use of a range of puppet technologies – as well as an introductory frame showing Shakespeare writing a dedication to his patron, Henry Wriothesley, Earl of Southampton, as the narrator voices the words and marionettes move upstage.
The narrative structure also layers and reflects, with the key scenes between Venus and Adonis paralleled by wonderful scenes from the natural world involving lovelorn horses, hares and boars, and with Venus’s examination of Adonis’s corpse being prefigured in Adonis’s tending to Venus in her swoon. But the overall effect of the production is not one of fracturing but of fluidity and expansiveness, reflecting the exquisite orchestration of the manipulators seamlessly working together on the puppets, and suggesting the multiplicity of life.
Venus and Adonis was hugely popular when it was first published in 1593 and remained Shakespeare’s most popular printed work in his lifetime. On its opening night at Civic Theatre, this “puppet masque” version of the poem engaged, delighted, and surprised its audience, who entered fully into the performance, laughing freely, gasping, and finally offering a standing ovation.
Venus and Adonis is a Royal Shakespeare Company production in association with Little Angel Theatre, and is presented by Civic Theatre in association with Dublin Theatre Festival. It runs at Civic Theatre as part of the festival until Saturday 7 October with performances at 8pm, and additional matinées on Friday at 5pm and Saturday at 3pm. You can buy tickets here.
- DATE & TIME: Tues 3 – Sat 7 October // 8pm // Matinees on Wed 4 at 3pm, Fri 6 at 5pm, Sat 7 at 3pm
- TICKETS: €25 & €23 concession
- DEALS: STUDENTS: €10 – matinees only | MEAL DEAL: €36 ticket + 2 course meal | GROUPS – €20
Civic Theatre are also offering a Joy of Shakespeare workshop on Saturday 7 October from 10.30am to 1.30pm, free when you buy a ticket to the play. Call 01 4627477 to book.