From Ted Hughes’ Shakespeare and the Goddess of Complete Being: “By the time (Shakespeare) emerged into history... he had written the Henry VI trilogy, Titus Andronicus and two or three successful comedies. His foothold on the stage, as can be seen in hindsight was firm. But he must have been aware that at any moment the stage itself could founder... In the Autumn of 1592, when an unusually severe outbreak of plague had closed all theatres since summer, it could well have seemed they might never open again.
During these times of plague, it was customary for the lordly patrons to carry their poets off to their country houses. On this occasion, perhaps, the precocious young Henry Wriothesley, 3rd Earl of Southhampton, seized the opportunity to carry off Shakespeare. However it happened, by April 1593 Wriothesley had become Shakespeare’s patron. VENUS and ADONIS, which was registered for publication in April 1593 (just before Christopher Marlowe was murdered), is prefaced by a letter dedicating it to the powerful 3rd Earl of Southhampton, Henry Wriothesley. At this time Wriothesley was nineteen years old and Shakespeare had just turned twenty-nine.”
The god Adonis is wooed passionately by the Goddess Venus, and when he rejects her love, calling it lust, she accuses him - at great length and with great eloquence - of self-love. Preferring his solitary hunting to dalliance with Venus, Adonis is killed by a boar, whereupon he is transformed by Venus into a flower. (From Ovid’s METAMORPHOSES.)
There followed from Shakespeare the major body of the sonnets and the other long poem THE RAPE OF LUCRECE. Then, the theatres were re-opened and the playwriting recommenced.
As part of the Bell Shakespeare’s new work development, Mind’s Eye, VENUS & ADONIS was, with the Malthouse Melbourne developmental wing, grown. Mind’s Eye is Bell Shakespeare’s development arm: ”Work developed within the Mind’s Eye programme can be initiated by writers, designers, directors, composers, choreographers or performers. These can be cross art-form, hybrid works, and not strictly text based.” It hopes “to demonstrate a commitment to innovation, recognising that creative risk is at the heart of our practice. It will allow artists to push the boundaries of their form, explore their connection to the contemporary world and enrich their work with ambitious ideas.” (Those of you interested in new writing and form exploration should check out SYDNEY ARTS JOURNO who has put up a very informative and important page about organisations providing resource for the development of new work, prepared by Bec Clarke.)
The Artistic team led by Marion Potts has created from the source material of Shakespeare’s poem, VENUS AND ADONIS, a Music theatre piece, a play called VENUS & ADONIS. (Notice the subtle difference to the title of the poem: & for and). The original poem has three voices, that of the poet-narrator, then Adonis and mostly Venus. The adapters have cast the audience as Adonis, so that his voice and that of the narrator is subsumed, Venus is then represented by two voices, two women. The idea “became clear that if Venus the Immortal had double the power, two voices with which to harmonise, twice as many limbs to twine, the brain power and seductive potential of two (double the ammunition, as it were) we could allude to a goddess of infinite being…” It also gave the composer two female voices to compose for.
This, then is an adaptation of the text. Converting a poem to performance art. Ms Potts along with her composer Andree Greenwell have concocted a vision of the piece for two female voices. The performers being, Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior. The scoring of the music is subtle in its compositional details in attempting to keep the historic Elizabethan lineage and yet being grittily contemporary. Ms Greenwell hopes “the end result is something strange and beautiful.” The sound is quasi-Elizabethan, for the most part, and the employment of instruments like the recorder is cunningly intertwined with more contemporary instruments to achieve that. The sound and the setting of the songs have an aural concoction that are sometimes haunting and beautiful. There are however occasions when the music and the passions of the singing dominate and obliterate the text and one feels lost in the narrative advance of the accompanied lyric adaptation.
The selected verse stanzas are when spoken are compellingly delivered and always the stronger poetic tool. Ms Prior having the emotional context of a desperate and disappointed Venus, plumbing a sensitive depth of pain, whilst Ms Madden mostly performs the outward show of the lustful and showy external of the Goddess. The two Venus complimenting each other.
The text is often surprisingly erotic:
“...I’ll be park, and thou shalt be my deer;
Feed where thou wilt, on mountain or in dale:
Graze on my lips; and if those be dry,
Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie.
"Within this limit is relief enough,
Sweet bottom-grass, and high delightful plain,
Round rising hillocks, brakes obscure and rough,
To shelter thee from tempest and rain:
Then be my deer, since I am thy park;
No dog shall rouse thee, tho’ a thousand bark.“
There is much scholarly debate has to how the poem came to be approved and licensed by one of the most severe theological censors of the age, Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury. Some say that Lord Burghley, the guardian to the young Lord of Southhampton had ulterior motives to allow its publication to persuade the young Wriothesley to reconsider his actions in rejecting his proposed bride and to check his heedlessly preferred sexual liberties. In the poem Shakespeare represents Venus as lust and Adonis‘s self love not an erotic self-indulgence but a devotion to an ideal of true love, i.e. the chaste and faithful love of marriage.
There is in this production a clear sense of the lustiness of Venus but not always the clarity of the position of Adonis, and if the lustiness of Venus was all I was meant to absorb then the work was a success but if it also had the sense of a devotion to an ideal of love represented by Adonis and his idealism of the chaste and faithful love of marriage I never heard, saw or felt any compelling reason to experience it. And since I and my fellow audience were the Adonis that was being seduced I was unsure of my reasons for staying in the hotel room.
It was the Designer’s notes in the program that tweaked my perceptions. Anna Trelogan talks of the artistic choices of setting the poem in a hotel room that “is itself of an ambiguous time, it is not modern, but it may simply have been a long time since redecoration. The hotel room does not become a specific setting but the FRAME, the conduit through which the epic can be viewed.” And yet more, ”The costuming is neither modern nor strictly of another period and the hair (i.e. the wigs: a long five foot horse mane of hair) is of another world entirely.”
The hotel room design reminded me of the Budget Motel chain called Best Western. Cheap and flimsy dressings with a superficial sense of luxury. The uncarpeted floor, the hard uncomfortable looking bed, the wall paper and lighting fixtures all had the sense for me of a dodgy “bordello”. When the curtain revealed the patently artificial tropical frippery outside the window in its tacky red and green lighting (Paul Jackson) (where the band was seen to be playing) I remembered the accommodation that I suffered with, in San Francisco, less than salubrious, district hotel, many years ago now.
The costumes of the two Venus’, two tightly fitting skirts, one grey the other black, one with gashed seams up one side of the skirt to reveal the black lingerie, the other not quite so raunchily cut, but both with a very low cut jacket that shelved and propped the mature bosoms forward at us. The make–ups that were more than slightly over stated or over painted all signifying to me a Venus of “harlotry” predilections. Certainly the physicality reminded one of the possibility of being caught in a room with some “crack addicted“ whores. (My romantic and perhaps naive vision of Venus is that of Botticelli’s “Venus Rising”. The modern sensibility and respect for the Immortals certainly has been tainted. “What an ugly world we live in“, I lament.)
So, it was for me, when the “frame” of the design and the “frame” of the pulse and volume and the heavy rock sensation of the music dominated the poetry and what the language was wanting to communicate, that I got lost. The Style of the production in it’s collective power derailed me from the clarity of the narrative. It was most clear in the relative quietudes of the spoken verse and the calmer offers of the physical lives. The hectic energies of a Rock musical furore did not always work, for me, to give me clarity as to what was happening.
This is not to say that I was not impressed or excited by the whole of this brave or innovatively committed approach to the poem of Shakespeare. How could one not admire the all out, passionate performances or not embrace the abundant skills of the two artists - one could not ask for more resolution of skill. It was just that that passion and resolution sometimes overruled the substance of what the text had been adapted to say. The design excitements dominated the sensibilities and gave little pause or rest for contrasted apprehensions. (The musicians were Felicity Clark, Michael Sheridan, Bree Van Reyk.)
The piece finished, and I was partly left bewildered about what the work was attempting to communicate. But such was my curiosity that I went home and read the poem. For the first time in my life. I quite liked it. (You must also understand that poetry was the strand that I elected not to study in the final exams of high school because I hated it. Poetry has always been a trial for me.) So the Bell Shakespeare Company had got me to expand my knowledge of Shakespeare as a result of a lack of clarity of the performance experience.
Balance needs to occupy the production a little more to move it to what I think is brilliant potential. But it is still mostly potential. It is not yet complete in it’s exploration of communication. It is too noisy in every way, for my comprehension, at the moment.
As a product of the development arm of Mind’s Eye this is a very arresting and promising work. It is only part way there, in this production, at the moment.
By the way, it was this piece of the work, declared by the grieving Venus, that caused me to read the work as Shakespeare had presented it to his patron Henry Writriothesley. Except in my book at home, of course.
“Since thou art dead, lo! Here I prophesy,
Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend;
It shall be waited on with jealousy,
Find sweet beginning but unsavoury end;
Ne’er settled equally, but high or low;
That all love’s pleasure shall not match his woe.
“It shall be fickle, false, and full of fraud;
Bud and be blasted in a breathing while;
The bottom poison, and the top o’erstrawed
With sweets that shall be truest sight beguile:
The strongest body shall it make most weak,
Strike the wise dumb, and teach the fool to speak.
It shall be sparing, and too full of riot,
Teaching decrepit age to tread the measures;
The staring ruffian shall keep it quiet,
Pluck down the rich, enrich the poor with treasures:
It shall be raging mad, and silly mild,
Make the young old, the old become a child.
It shall suspect where is no cause of fear;
It shall not fear where it should most mistrust;
It shall be merciful, and too severe,
And most deceiving when it seems most just;
Put fear to valour, courage to the coward.
It shall be cause of war and dire events, They that love best their love shall not enjoy.”
And set dissention ’twixt the son and sire;
Subject and servile to all discontents,
As dry combustious matter is to fire;
Sith in his prime death my love destroy,
They that love best their love shall not enjoy.”
Oh, one hears the future: OTHELLO, THE WINTER’S TALE… And much else. To have heard this, is a reward enough to take from this VENUS & ADONIS.
Playing now until 28 February. Book online or call 02 9250 1777.