“The most wooden performances ever,” wrote one London critic of the latest Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production. “Superb!”
For its new staging of Shakespeare’s epic poem “Venus and Adonis,” which tells of the seduction of the handsome youth Adonis by Venus, the hot-blooded goddess of love, director Gregory Doran turned to Japan’s bunraku puppet theater for inspiration.
The results have set the critics drooling, and not only for artistic reasons. “[Venus is] a new star,” wrote the London-based Evening Standard’s reviewer, “a sultry young temptress with a low-cut chiffon dress. She should be auditioned forthwith for Juliet or Ophelia.”
As he revealed in an interview in The Japan Times earlier this year, Doran was inspired by a visit he made in 2003 to the National Bunraku Theatre in Osaka, while his production of “Macbeth” for the RSC was touring Japan. In Osaka, he met Yoshida Bunjaku, a designated living national treasure and one of the greatest tayu (bunraku narrator) of his era, about whom he observed: “Watching him manipulate the [puppet of the] princess, I was fascinated by how she could whip out a strand of hair on her otherwise immaculate coiffure to demonstrate her distracted grief, or seem to grip the sleeve of her kimono in her teeth by means of a tiny pin projecting from the corner of her mouth.” Doran knew that, in bunraku, he had found a medium through which to dramatize the poem — a poem he had recently adapted as “an entertainment for three voices.”
But it wasn’t simply that puppetry was dramatically appropriate. Bunraku drama, which was developed in the 17th century, also struck strong thematic chords with the subject matter of Shakespeare’s poem. “The stories tell of divided lovers and suicide pacts, epic adventures and concealed identities,” Doran wrote — “very much the stuff of Shakespeare’s plays, and from about the same era.”
This is not, of course, pure bunraku as Japanese masters teach it. In Japan, practitioners will spend decades training before reaching the rank of omozukai– the master puppeteer who controls the puppet’s body — aided by two assistants who move the feet and the left arm respectively. Here, a team of five puppeteers manipulate the two leads, plus the brilliantly expressive animal characters: two horses and the fearsome boar that is Adonis’ undoing.
There are touches that may have bunraku purists sucking air through their teeth in disapproval. As in bunraku, there is a narrator — here, veteran RSC actor Michael Pennington — but the puppeteers occasionally provide vocal effects, such as giggling or sighing. And though Pennington and the guitarist, Steve Russell, sit on either side of the stage just like their traditional Japanese counterparts in the roles of the tayu and shamisen player, they then depart from tradition by interacting with the puppets directly: Pennington offers the poem’s asides directly to the bewildered figure of Venus, and Russell looks absolutely terrified by a hoof-stamping show of equine lust when Adonis’ stallion courts a mare.
The puppeteers are not from the RSC, which has never staged a puppet show before, but are the in-house team at the production’s first venue, the tiny, 95-seat Little Angel Theatre in Islington, North London, which is the acclaimed home of puppetry in Britain. Before “Venus and Adonis,” few knew of its magic, but it’s been sold out every night of this production, with eager punters lining up for returns.
“Venus and Adonis” draws on the Little Angel’s expertise in all aspects of the puppeteer’s art, with the monstrous boar that fatally gores Adonis first projected as a looming shadow, and marionettes — string puppets — enacting the prologue, in which a love-struck Shakespeare presents a copy of the poem to his patron, the 19-year-old Earl of Southampton.
Incidentally, the extent of British critics’ ignorance of puppetry is revealed by the number of reviewers incorrectly describing the main puppets here, as in bunraku, as being approximately half- lifesize and manipulated hands-on by the puppeteers as “marionettes.” But this hasn’t stopped them being wowed by the lifelike nature of bunraku-style puppets. “It seems amazing that their facial expressions are unchanging, so characterful are they,” wrote the Observer’s reviewer.
Doran is evidently thrilled with the production’s reception, and drops by the theater when he can. “It’s like London has gone mad for it,” he said, shaking his head in puzzled pleasure. “Critics are suggesting that the puppets should be eligible for Evening Standard acting awards.”
“Venus and Adonis” might even, it’s been suggested, pave the way for a revival of a long-neglected British dramatic form, the masque. These courtly musical entertainments, popular in the 16th and 17th centuries and requiring elaborate stage settings, with gods, angels and heavenly chariots zooming around, have been regarded as unstageable in the modern era. Puppetry might be the way to do it, and “Venus and Adonis,” which contains many masque-like elements, shows it could work.
Audiences outside London will soon be able to share the magic. “Venus and Adonis” next week moves to The Other Place, the RSC’s studio theater at Stratford-upon-Avon, and Doran plans to use “puppets, lots of them” alongside actors in his upcoming production of “A Midsummer’s Night Dream.”
As for Japan? “Japan was the key, the clue,” Doran enthuses, “so yes, we’re planning to take ‘Venus and Adonis’ there next year.” It remains to be seen whether Tokyo audiences will, like their London counterparts, fall at the silken feet of Shakespeare’s petulant Venus.