Moontide Sun & Close Quarter Productions
C primo, Edinburgh
‘Venus and Adonis’ is possibly the most uncomfortable theatrical experience I’ve ever had. And that is its brilliance.
A one-man performance of Shakespeare’s narrative poem by veteran theatre, Film and TV actor Christopher Hunter, ‘Venus and Adonis’ takes the familiar story of the goddess of love Venus’ amorous pursuit of handsome but disinterested youth Adonis, and transforms it into a chilling, disturbing, unsettling, queasy tale of sexual abuse, Hunter taking Venus’ romantic overtures and turning them into predatory demands, while the haughtily dismissive Adonis of the poem becomes a traumatised victim of assault.
Adapting a work first published in 1593, written during the closure of London’s theatres due to a plague outbreak, and the chief source of Shakespeare’s fame during his lifetime, this production faithfully sticks to the sixteenth-century text, and yet utterly subverts its meaning and content. This is all down to Hunter’s spellbinding, mesmerising, pitch-dark performance. From the moment he steps on stage to his final bow, this reviewer was hooked for every second. The intimacy of the venue lending a sense of sometimes uncomfortable closeness to the action, Hunter draws the audience into both the lustful scheming of a corruptive older woman, and the frightened naivety of a young, inexperienced man, powerfully overturning the more conventional narrative of a male abuser and female victim. It challenges all our expectations and assumptions about what we imagine when we think of sexual assault, and Hunter and his company Noontide Sun, in collaboration with Close Quarter Productions and Survivors UK, are to be lauded for embarking on this project. If this isn’t a thought-provoking piece of theatre, I really don’t know what is.
Hunter’s Venus is terrifying. A by turns greedy, manipulative, spoilt, childish and petulant individual, she preys on Adonis as a spider might on a fly, relentlessly pursuing him for her pleasure, and refusing to take No for an answer. Hunter crafts something alternately pitiable and evil with just his eyes, something cruel and cold appearing in them the second he goes into her character. This is a being fixated on only one thing: gratification. And she will stop at nothing to get it. At many, many moments throughout this hour of theatre, I was simultaneously yearning for escape, and not wanting to lift my eyes from the performance before me. Hunter’s disquieting, unpredictable take on the supposed goddess of love results in one of the most unsettling stage villains I’m likely to ever see.
Hunter’s theatricality contributes in no small part to all of this. Whether slowly, suggestively applying lipstick, or lying back in inviting positions, gradually loosening his tie and unbuttoning his shirt, or pouring water over himself, he draws us into the mindset of this character consumed with dark desire with almost every on-stage movement, inhabiting the role with an effortlessness I sincerely doubt many other actors would be able to match. It really is flesh-crawling.
If his take on the victimised Adonis stands out less clearly in the memory, this is no slight on Hunter other than that his portrayal of Venus is so utterly impossible to forget, it all but eclipses everything else. What this reviewer does recall, however, is the sense of a heartbreakingly out of his depth youth, desperate to be left in peace to hunt with companions, and yet unable to escape the affections of a much cleverer, much shrewder, much more calculating individual. Hunter really creates the sense, at times, of a literal child eager to be let go to play, a male in no way ready to become a ‘man’ in the way that Venus wants him to. It’s, as one might imagine, highly uncomfortable to watch, and yet riveting. By the time the character meets his tragic end, the audience is left with the unmistakable sense that Venus is as much to blame for his untimely demise as the wild boar of the poem.
The language, of course, is as rich and immersive as it has always been, this reviewer’s study of Shakespeare for university modules happily having left enough retention to understand everything being said and performed on stage- something, unfortunately, that couldn’t be said for my friend joining me for the afternoon, having not realised the play would be in the original Shakespearean. Even he, however, conceded the power of Hunter’s performance as enough to keep him interested. This reviewer would venture that even audiences who have never read a word of the Bard would find themselves compelled by this piece. In Hunter’s hands, the debate, in particular, towards play’s end between Venus and Adonis over the difference between love and lust becomes stunning, Adonis’ righteous fury over people being all too quick to corrupt the former with the latter, and Venus’ petulant defensiveness in response surely ringing true for anyone who has ever lamented the seeming obsession of the world with sex over deeper, genuine affection.
This reviewer isn’t always the biggest fan of one-man productions, generally preferring the back-and-forth dynamics and interactions of multiple performers on stage, but this play is beyond measure one of the best of its genre. It simply begs to be seen, and, uncomfortable, and at times frankly bleak as it was, this reviewer is extremely glad to have done so.
Script ***** (it’s Shakespeare!)