Note: I received complimentary tickets to attend this production, but all opinions are my own.
It’s good to be back. After such a long absence from auditoriums, it was lovely to take a seat in a theatre again yesterday, to enjoy the premiere of a new and original play.
Christopher Hunter’s adaptation of Shakespeare’s earliest published work starred Gillian Dean & Robin Paley Yorke, and was an intriguing premise, as I had learned in my exclusive interviews with Christopher and Gillian very recently (and many thanks to them again for their time). So I was looking forward to checking it out.
The play is a contemporary dramatization of Shakespeare’s poem Venus and Adonis, which had been written during a period when London’s theatres were closed due to the plague, making it rather apt that this interpretation came about during our present pandemic.
I won’t give away any spoilers, as hopefully the play will return elsewhere beyond this premiere performance. But it takes the form of a two-hander between unnamed characters in a medical observation room. It begins with a handsome young boy laying on a bed, before a beautiful young woman enters the room to talk to him. And as she does so, it sounds like the boy has been the victim of some kind of sexual assault. And so the connection between them appears to be as simple as the set design.
However, we soon discover that both characters are far more complex than that, with their own desires and ulterior motives, and their own strengths and weaknesses. And so there are fascinating exchanges of power dynamics between them, including seduction and attraction, teasing and taunting, resistance and rejection. Sometimes it’s as if they’re playing cat and mouse, and at other times having a tug of war. They both feel certain of themselves yet go on to learn a great deal from each other, about love and lust and animal instincts, which lie at the heart of the story so to speak.
It’s therefore really interesting to watch the interplay between them, as it goes through various twists and turns, and the chemistry between actors Robin and Gillian worked very well here. Whether you like the characters or not, you can’t help but engage with them and be curious as to where things will lead, and to see if either of them will come out on top. I always feel it’s a compliment when it doesn’t feel like a play has lasted as long as it did, and those 90 minutes soon went by.
It’s performed using a lot of the original wording from Shakespeare’s poem – which I had naturally assumed anyway, but only confirmed later, as I deliberately didn’t read it in advance, wanting to engage with the story on its own merits. So I can’t say how much is Shakespeare’s text and how much is additional original dialogue, but if there was any of the latter, it fitted in seamlessly as far as I could tell.
Indeed, I’m not a Shakespeare expert, it’s fair to say, as prior to moving to London a few years ago I hadn’t given him any real attention, at least not since we covered him a bit in school. It is something I should get into more, it’s just a case of finding the right entry points I think. So this is only the second adaptation of the Bard’s work that I’ve attended (the first being Much Ado About Nothing). And as such I’m not yet accustomed to decoding his style of language fluently.
So I’m happy to admit there were a few moments where I briefly got a bit lost in the dialogue – and that’s purely down to my uncultured ignorance, not the script, which I can’t fault. But on the whole I did find it easy to follow. There were no moments where I zoned out or anything like that, which has happened in the past when I’ve tried watching a bit of Shakespeare on TV or online. This play actually held my attention and I was able to follow the story, I think aided by the fact it was just between two people, both of whom were very interesting. Even though their relationship kept evolving, I was quickly able to understand any changes in the dynamics between them, and that in turn clarified the meaning of the dialogue, which was layered with imagery that helped to explain and explore their actions and emotions. And Gillian Dean has a lovely singing voice too, as we discovered at one stage.
Also, the setting of a medical observation room not only forces the characters to be in close proximity and unable to avoid one another, but it also enables audio description to be delivered by a third unseen character from the facility. She talks to the whole audience in modern day language and takes notes as she monitors proceedings with us. So there are moments where her character is surprised or puzzled by what she sees.
And it worked well for me. It was certainly helpful in explaining some of the actions taken and body language expressed by the characters that I would otherwise have had difficulty interpreting or might not have noticed at all. There were a couple of fleeting moments where the actors mistook a pause in the narration as their cue to continue, getting a word or two out before the observer interrupted them to finish her lines, but ultimately it all flowed very well indeed. And in all fairness, I know the audio description was still being finalised in the days leading up to the performance, as they were keen to get it right, which is an attention to detail that I appreciate. Indeed, I noticed quite a few visually impaired people in the audience, so the word had certainly got out about it, which is great.
All in all, therefore, it was a compelling and complex, yet very accessible, psychological exploration of the two characters, who are very different yet overlap in some ways. And though centred around core themes of love and desire, the continuous shifts in tone and power between them kept things varied and engaging throughout, reminding you that human behaviour and emotion can never be expressed in simple singular terms, instead residing on a flexible and often unpredictable spectrum.
So it hope it gets further opportunity to be seen by a wider audience. Certainly for me it was a great way to make a return to the theatre for the first time in 20 months. While online theatre has helped to fill the gap, and will forever be a vital route of access for some that mustn’t be ignored – and I know this particular show was available to live stream as well – there is no true substitute for being at a show in person when it’s possible to do so.
And the next production I have booked couldn’t be more different. Well, I guess in one or two ways there are very slight connections, but by and large it will be in complete contrast for sure! And that’s one of the many delights of theatre, no two shows are ever the same. So I’m relieved about its return, and I look forward to sharing more experiences with you in the weeks and months ahead, once again!