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Venus and Adonis at Riverside Studios

Let me take you back to a London very different from today. Thanks to an epidemic breakout, the city is pretty much locked down and the theatres are all shut. In his home, a young playwright is twiddling his thumbs trying to decide what to do now there is nowhere to put on his plays. Obviously, this is not the London of 2020, but is in fact 1592, the young playwright’s name is William Shakespeare, and he didn’t twiddle for too long, and he decided to pick up his quill and give poetry a go. The result was an epic poem called Venus and Adonis which not only became young Will’s first published work but also, was turned into a one-man show by Actor Christopher Hunter and which is on for a limited run at the Riverside Studios.

Christopher Hunter stars in Shakespeare's 'Venus and Adonis'
Christopher Hunter stars in Shakespeare’s ‘Venus and Adonis’

According to Wikipedia, and they should know, Venus and Adonis is a narrative poem that tells the story of Venus, the goddess of Love; of her unrequited love; and of her attempted seduction of Adonis, an extremely handsome young man, who would rather go hunting. The poem is pastoral, and at times erotic, comic, and tragic. It contains discourses on the nature of love, and observations of nature. The 1,194 lines of the poem are written in stanzas (199 in total) of six lines of iambic pentameter rhyming ABABCC.

Ok, now anyone who knows me is aware that, on the whole, I don’t do poetry – I still think Dr Seuss is the pinnacle of poetic excess – so it was with some trepidation, after having looked the poem up online, that I entered the Riverside Studios. However, I needn’t have worried as it was this was not going to be some regular poetry reading. Sat on a bench, briefcase by his side, Christopher is dressed in a lounge suit, wearing a tie, and looking every inch a businessman who has just sat down for five minutes between meetings. He seems to be writing notes, and getting frustrated with himself as discarded pieces of paper are scattered all around the place. Finally, he is happy, and he starts to recite. And suddenly the flat words I had read hours earlier are off the page and living in front of me. This is a poem crying out to be not just read but performed and Christopher really does that, bringing every nuance of the story out and giving it to the audience to see, feel and live the words as they follow Venus’ attempted seduction of the young innocent from coy beginning to surprisingly emotional end.

There is a lot to take on with Venus and Adonis and the story is a fascinating one, not only in the actual narrative but in the many different ways that it can be interpreted. Was Venus simply a maiden in love who may have innocently overstepped the mark? Was Adonis more cynical than he initially seemed, playing Venus until she was begging for his acceptance? Was this a story of love or abuse? Or was it simply a tale of two people and their entanglements? I can’t answer that for you, and scholars far more learned than I have debated it for centuries. I will say this as I was listening, I was imagining what would happen if Venus was male and Adonis female. I think that within a few lines, the #MeTooo movement would have something to say about what was occurring – and in my opinion, they would be perfectly correct in their feelings.

However the poem is interpreted, the words are one thing, what matters is how they are presented to an audience. Just as a great actor can be ruined by a poor script, so Shakespeare’s words can fall flat in the hands of the wrong actor. However, fear not gentler reader as nothing can fault Christopher’s performance of Venus and Adonis. He literally throws himself into every syllable, word, and sentence, bringing the story to life and taking the audience along the two protagonists’ journey in wonderful style. This is a very physical show, and a very simple one with, for example, small changes to the costume making a massive difference to the person.

The stage area seemed quite large when I first sat down but, thanks to some clever lighting and sounds quickly feels very intimate as my eyes followed Christopher’s movements. Director David Salter provides a wonderful physical manifestation of Shakespeare’s words and delivers a fantastic hour of sheer enjoyment.

By the end, it was obvious I had seen and heard something epic. Whether I was entirely easy with the story I had witnessed is neither here nor there. What mattered was that I was completely mesmerised by the whole performance. An amazing show that is so worth getting the tube to Hammersmith to experience. And, seriously, you might want to keep an eye out for that Shakespeare fellow. Based on this, he might have a pretty good future as a writer one day.

5 Star Rating

Review by Terry Eastham

In 1592 Shakespeare’s career as a dramatist had barely got off ground when a severe outbreak of the plague forced London’s theatres to close. He turned his hand to poetry and the result was Venus and Adonis, an epic poem that became his first published work and the best seller of its day!

Its commercial success was due in no small part to its more erotic passages which describe how, over a period of 24 hours, the sexually experienced Venus tries to seduce a young, virginal boy.

Is Venus and Adonis a soft-focus centrefold in the playbook of Elizabethan erotica? Or is it a portrait of sexual power, love, lust and its catastrophic consequences?

As we emerge from another period where London’s theatres were all shut for an extended period due to a global medical emergency, Christopher Hunter’s brilliant one-man dramatisation takes us on a journey through Shakespeare’s vibrant language and into the poem’s pulsating dark heart.

MarMaxTheatricals LTD
Venus and Adonis
created and performed by Christopher Hunter
director David Saltss

Riverside Studios
101 Queen Caroline Street
London, W6 9BN
Tuesday 9 May – Sunday 21 May 2023

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