Venus and Adonis doesn’t need dramatising. It is a poem so varied in tone and pitch, so full of the unexpected, the felicitous, the witty, that to read it is to have one’s own imagination fired. No, doesn’t need it, but then neither does Hamlet. Or Lear. Reason not the need.
Christopher Hunter’s exceptional rendering has been an utter pleasure. I’ve seen it three times, in very different settings, and each engagement with the poem has been different. Initially, not knowing the text well, it was a matter of keeping up. The verse, albeit early Shakespeare and fairly straightforward, is also, well, Shakespearean, with all the syntactical complexities that involves. And of course it is full of astonishments – the very first line is perplexing: “Even as the sun with purple-colour'd face”. It doesn’t help to know that purple was an exclusively royal colour (Elizabeth banned it from court for anyone other than family members) or that the sun was symbolic of the monarch; it remains odd. In the fifth verse we have “desire doth lend her force / Courageously to pluck him from his horse”. Think about that for a moment – except you don’t have a moment. The poem is galloping ahead: “He saith she is immodest, blames her 'miss / What follows more she murders with a kiss.” Words murdered with lips? Wow. And so it goes, and even now, there are lines I’ve read and heard but not fully taken in or been stopped by. Tonight it was “bid Suspicion double-lock the door, / Lest Jealousy, that sour unwelcome guest, / Should, by his stealing in, disturb the feast”. Suddenly I saw this sly figure at the gate, bolting once, bolting twice, and the Green-Eyed monster snarling outside.
Chris’s performance has developed bit by bit. I first saw it in the sitting room of my pal Stephen Graham (co-producer). There were about twenty of us. It was intimate, astonishing. I had gone out of piety and loyalty. I left full of a Shakespeare play I didn’t know, eager to read it. There were several of these ‘salon’ performances before Chris took the show to Edinburgh. There, a fuller theatricality had been developed, the set and style decided upon: a man in a suit and tie sitting on a bench writing. The tones of voice (Narrator, Venus, Adonis) were more fixed. A little sound had been added. For the Rose Playhouse, that unexpected space around the corner from the Globe, where the remains of the original Bankside theatre are to be found, Chris has, as it were, bloomed into the full performance, with a performance surrounded on three sides. With a soundscape. He has never been anything other than word perfect (to this ear at any rate), but now he is so wholly the three parts that the audience is inside the poem itself, right from the start. He, an almost gaunt man, manages to give Venus a blowsy, Rubensical shape and allure; he gives Adonis that boyishness (Adonis has “a hairless face”) that adolescence messes with, that seems to make him not quite sure of his manliness. Shakespeare of course gives him almost prosaic lines until his great and touching comparison of love and lust towards the end.
Chris has always maintained that there is a darkness in this poem, that there is an element of sexual abuse, and of course there is: Venus, although a goddess, is recognisably human, for she is full of hot desire. And she is sexually experienced. She has seduced the god of war himself, led him by a red-rose chain. And on the first two sittings, I was perhaps more taken with this aspect than I was last night, when I heard and saw the poem as being about the need for beauty; that beauty gives order, or that beauty dies without order. “For he being dead, with him is beauty slain, / And, beauty dead, black chaos comes again.” This is the Shakespeare who is familiar from all those comedies that end resolved in marriage, and the tragic partnerships that end amid chaos and bloodshed.
The show finishes at the Rose on Sunday. It ought to go on its travels. Should a German or Kenyan or Japanese or American Shakespeare-lover read this, please consider inviting Chris Hunter to perform for you. Help disappoint Venus in her terrible prophesy; “Sorrow on love hereafter shall attend”. Instead echo Adonis: “Love is all truth”.