In Venus and Adonis, a narrative poem written at the beginning of the Bard's career, Shakespeare is at his most ruminative. He looks at love, lust, gendered interaction, anger and death; he explicitly ponders human emotions and their stimuli. It lends itself to puppetry; in this art form the imaginary world is allowed a unique freedom of expression onstage. Indeed, in many ways it would have been hard for this production to go wrong - directed by the Artistic Director of the RSC, narrated by the hugely talented Suzanne Burden, and made in collaboration with renowned puppetry company Little Angel Theatre - it was always likely to be a success. There is even a guitarist (Nick Lee) providing lute-like, complementary accompaniment throughout. It is carefully and craft-fully performed; a beautiful, spellbinding piece.
The puppetry used in the production includes delicate string puppets on the dainty stage at the back, shadow puppets, and hand-manipulated living puppets of Venus and Adonis, the wild boar, horses, and a hare. The skill showcased in the handling of puppets never ceases to amaze me; in the right hands (like those involved in Venus and Adonis), they have a potent capacity to combine life with imagination, and seeing puppets express human emotion constitutes a suspension of disbelief which feels new and different. This piece is very funny; there's some cheekiness which the puppets bring to the human story between doting Venus and the unimpressed Adonis. But indeed, the form is hugely versatile; there are also moments of poignant lyricism which are drawn from the script with elegance and style. As Venus contemplates Death: at once a "'Hard-favour'd tyrant, ugly, meagre, lean" and "king of graves and grave for kings, Imperious supreme of all mortal things", she dances in his huge skeletal puppet hands, which have appeared to embrace/curse her.
In this production, the line between puppet diagesis and real life is further blurred by the occasional interactions between the narrator, Suzanne Burden, and Venus and Adonis; her relationship with them like a concerned but wise guardian. Burden's performance is accomplished in every aspect; her delivery of the rich text is sparkling but grounded; engaging and generous. She commands the stage, seeming to draw together the various elements of the piece - words, movement and music - with a warm, firm grip.