Venus & Adonis, The Globe, 21 April 2012
The Isango Ensemble slowly filled the Globe stage. The men gathered stage right in knitted pullover tops and breeches. The women stood stage left, looking elegant in two-tiered dresses and elbow length gloves. Both men and women had small ruffs about their necks and the colour palette of both groups’ outfits consisted of muted browns.
A rolled white sheet marked the boundary between the two groups. This divide hinted at the impending battle of the sexes. A gnarled black hunting horn stood downstage.
The start of the performance was remarkable. A single female voice of immense clarity and beauty seared into the air, filling the whole theatre.
More voices joined the chorus of song and soon a line of women danced and sang their way along and behind the white sheet, which the men had unfolded and stretched across the stage.
The last woman to pass behind the sheet was then wrapped in it. This was Venus.
The fat figure of Cupid let loose one of his arrows, which cut Venus’ hand, filling her with feelings of love. These were soon directed at Adonis, who rushed to the front of the stage and leapt into the air, driving the point of his spear forcefully into the boards as he landed. Having made his dynamic entrance, he then sounded the hunting horn.
Venus captured Adonis by plucking him down from his horse, which consisted of a framework of horizontal poles on which he stood, together with another upright pole bearing a silvery metallic horse’s head.
She caressed herself to emphasise her womanliness and her desire for Adonis, but the young man simply frowned and lay on the ground.
However, this Venus had a trick in store. Another woman came forward, and the sheet was unwrapped from Venus and spooled onto her so that she became Venus. A fresh assault on the reluctant Adonis began.
A total of seven women took turns to be the goddess of love, symbolising that Venus was no mere mortal.
The singing ranged from the operatic to traditional African harmonies, with a subtle musical accompaniment including drums and marimbas.
Although most of the poem was spoken and sung in languages such as Zulu and Xhosa, with some English, it was quite easy to spot the point at which Venus invited Adonis to graze on her lips and other parts of her anatomy.
The distinctive clicks of the Xhosa sections were particularly enjoyable to hear. Some of the sounds of that language seemed very similar to the exhalatory tones of Welsh.
Adonis’ escape was frustrated when his stallion was enticed away by a mare. The chase was staged using two horse heads on poles.
We were introduced to the boar that Adonis preferred to hunt instead of making love. It was represented by a man with a bright red, grimacing face. He roared like a wild boar and was pursued by the other men yelping like hunting dogs.
A final trick seemed to work. Venus collapsed as if dead, leaving Adonis holding onto the folds of her sheet to prevent her falling. He slowly lowered her limp body to the ground and her trap was sprung. She pulled him down on top of her and their subsequent embrace was accentuated by wrapping the pair together in sheets.
Cupid returned briefly accompanied by the men, all of them wearing white-framed sunglasses.
But despite Venus’ best efforts, Adonis was intent of pursuing the boar. He left the stage by the front steps and walked off through the yard, at which point the performance took a break.
After the interval there was more plaintive singing from the women, identical to that at the start, this time representing Venus’ concern for the fate of her love.
The song was interrupted by the sound of the hunting horn, which raised her hopes that Adonis had returned.
The figure of Death appeared. His wiry torso was painted as a skeleton, with his face marked like a skull. The only streak of colour was his bright red tongue, which he brandished as if to mock Venus with the hue of Adonis’ shed blood. The intense red of Death’s tongue really stood out against the muted browns that dominated the stage.
Death was armed with two thin scythes which he chopped in the air to bring about the deaths of Adonis’ hunting dogs.
Venus found herself confronted with several male figures shrouded under blankets. In her desperation she plucked the blankets from off each figure in turn, desperately searching for her Adonis.
Finally she found him under the last blanket, but no sooner had she cried in relief that the figure of Death swiped his scythes through the air and Adonis fell dead on the ground.
Bewailing her loss, she took the sheet wrapped around her and put it under his head as a pillow. Adonis was then wafted away under billowing sheets leaving behind nothing but the pale purple anemones that symbolised his blood.
This was an absolute belter of a production that generated tremendous applause from an audience enthralled by an incredible combination of story-telling and operatic grade singing. This dramatic staging of Shakespeare’s narrative poem looked completely convincing.
If the Globe had wanted the Globe to Globe festival to get off to an impressive start, then their wish had been granted.