Review by Anja Bless
If you are looking for a play about Shakespeare with all the fun, drama, and monologues that Shakespeare’s works deliver, then be sure to catch Venus and Adonis, a new play by Damien Ryan currently showing at Seymour Centre. This latest production by Sports for Jove gives us a glimpse into the life of William Shakespeare, his family, and companions in a powerful mix of tragedy and comedy that the Bard himself would be proud of.
Venus and Adonis centres around the relationship between Shakespeare (Anthony Gooley) and one of England’s first known female poets, Aemilia Lanyer (Adele Querol). Ryan (as both writer and director) builds on speculation around their relationship as he explores the love and rivalry of their shared joy of wordsmithing, the lust of fateful attraction, and the pains of treating STI’s in Elizabethan England. Ryan’s set design, paired with Bernadette Ryan’s costuming, transports the audience back in time to the lavish palaces, and darker and grimier basements, of London in Shakespeare’s day. The use of flame and candlelight on stage, paired with modern day projections, provide a contrast between the Tudor era and the modern day.
While Venus and Adonis is about Lanyer and Shakespeare, it is also a play about the poem of the same name written by Shakespeare himself, and a (fictional) performance of the poem for Queen Elizabeth in her court. Borrowing from this Shakespearean trope of a play within a play reflects a trend throughout Venus and Adonis where lines of Shakespeare are thrown, at times disconcertingly, into the dialogue. There are instances when this works well, drawing a chuckle from the audience, and others where it feels heavy handed (such as in the inclusion of arguably Shakespeare’s most famous line – ‘To be, or not to be’).
While these moments may veer Venus and Adonis too much in the direction of Shakespearean fan fiction, the performances by the ensemble cast help add much needed rawness and humour to the play. Bernadette Ryan’s portrayal of Anne Hathaway is both powerful and considered, giving wonderful depth to an often-forgotten figure of Shakespeare’s life. One character who is not easy to forget is Belinda Giblin’s Queen Elizabeth. Dressed in full to the neck ruff, Giblin’s Elizabeth is witty, towering, regal, and fun. Jerome Meyer also deserves special mention for his lithe and earnest portrayal of Nathanial Field/Adonis, hinting at the struggles of gender dysmorphia for the men who played women for Shakespeare’s plays and earning raucous laughter from the audience as he fends off Lanyer while they rehearse as Venus and Adonis.
Querol as Lanyer is powerful and commanding, though at times her performance leans too often towards extended shouting. Nonetheless, it would have been interesting to see the play centre a little more closely on Lanyer as a person. Many are familiar with the story of William Shakespeare, and the experience of the first woman to assert herself as a professional poet in England surely deserved more focus. It is only after the bows that we learn via written projection that Lanyer’s poetry is eventually published. This surely should have warranted more stage time in comparison to some of the lengthier monologues.
Nonetheless, Venus and Adonis is excellent and enjoyable theatre. While teetering on being a little too long for its own good, Ryan and his cast manage to keep the audience on side with impeccable comedy, moving drama, and a nod to the legacy of Shakespeare.