Review by Sam Waite
There was a time when widespread illness caused theatres to be shuttered as potential patrons were confined to their homes by a combination of fear and a need to stop the spread of disease. During these difficult and never-to-be-forgotten times, artists who made their careers on stage or who created material to be performed were tasked with finding new ways to share their work and continue their creative development. The year was 1592, the illness the Black Death, and budding playwright William Shakespeare’s first published work made its way around London – an epic poem, Venus and Adonis.
This one-man performance piece, using Shakespeare’s text verbatim, was devised by its star, Christopher Hunter, around 2017 – however following another health disaster and its own closure of venues, his version arrives at Riverside Studios with the symbolic importance of a work which can survive the shutdown of its creator’s outlet. Hunter speaks the entire poem (1194 lines) and moulds himself into a trio of roles – our narrator for the evening, beautiful young Adonis, and lusty Goddess Venus.
Under his guidance, the hour of storytelling is easy to follow despite the age of the language. Each stanza of six lines has the same rhyme structure, but Hunter puts enough personality and emphasis into the tale to keep it from being repetitive. Indeed, it’s often not even noticed. Shakespeare’s poem finds Adonis, a beautiful young man focused only on the hunt, pursued by the Goddess of love – his resistances and reluctance are a nuisance to her, and he eventually succumbs to a death she foretold and begged him to avoid.
Director David Salter keeps the show moving at a brisk pace, resulting in a show that feel both longer and shorter than it is – longer because so much seems to have transpired, and shorter because it cannot possible have been an hour already. With only a bench and a briefcase as set dressing, Salter keeps Hunter’s performance moving both metaphorically and literally. Hunter is never simply stood or sat in place, and always making some small movement which serves to reinforce who he is speaking as, and what the tone of the dialogue is.
Of course, this speaks well of the man himself. Hunter imbues enough personality and uniqueness into the two protagonists that it quickly becomes second nature to follow who is speaking. Willing to lean into a femininity pushed forward by sexual aggression, his Venus is strong-willed and almost threatening in her erotic pursuit, her inherent power evident in the way Hunter almost seems to grow larger when caressing himself or extending his legs to portray her seduction. Meanwhile his Adonis is youthful, shy, even naïve about the situation. A feeling of discomfort and a lack of movement during Adonis’s dialogue lends itself to the idea that he is not only disinterested in romantic or sexual pursuits but doesn’t really understand what is being asked of him.
Hunter’s work begins long before the show does – as the audience enters, he is already sat on the bench, a notebook on his lap and another open within the briefcase. As he scribbles away, periodically reading back over his writing or stopping to ponder his work, we can see several crumpled-up pages to the side from his earliest attempts. When the lights go down, he stands and reads aloud the first stanza from his book, before tossing it aside with the others and regaling us with the tale unaided, before unfolding his many papers to find an important passage later.
Salter and Hunter make surprising and bold use of what little their stage has to offer. Confident and willing as a performer, Hunter pulls what appear to be markers from the briefcase and draws on sharper (and hilariously uneven) brows with them, lining his under-eyes a smoky black and painting his lips a cherry red. The initial implication of a man trying to present the story he has written soon falls away as both Venus and her would-be lover Adonis seem to inhabit him, using his body to convey their own actions and emotions. A particularly affecting sequence has his shirt buttons gradually undone as Venus continues her attempts to lure in Adonis, followed shortly after by them being shyly and carefully refastened as Adonis pushes his own stance on the matter, further reinforcing the discomfort this more aggressive and powerful pursuer creates.
While some confusion does arise from the fact that this, inarguable a work of narrative poetry rather than a true theatrical piece, is being presented as an acted piece of stage, it cannot be argued that Hunter and Salter have made strong and rewarding choices with the material. Venus and Adonis make a welcome addition to Riverside Studios’ array of exciting and varied work and, given the poem’s history, it’s a delight to see this early piece of The Bard’s bibliography explored for new generations and with such intelligent outlooks behind it.
Venus and Adonis plays at Riverside Studios until May 21st.
For tickets and information visit https://riversidestudios.co.uk/see-and-do/venus-and-adonis-71470/