Venus & Adonis 2009





The story is simple. Goddess meets Boy, Goddess wants Boy, Goddess (in Shakespeare’s version) doesn’t get Boy; instead he turns into a Flower. But of course Shakespeare knows that life is never quite that straightforward – he gives people what they want but also more than they bargain for.
In a sparkling new response to Shakespeare’s most popular poem, Venus is a woman with a past who is having trouble with her future. Venus & Adonis was directed by Bell Shakespeare’s Associate Artistic Director Marion Potts and starred Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior as the Hydra-headed Venus who is ardent, wilful, wanton, terrifying… but also wondering where the hell she’s heading. Desire is only half the story…
This season was co-presented with Sydney Theatre Company as part of its Next Stage programme.


The Wharf, Sydney  11 – 28 February
Bruce Mason Centre, Auckland  18 – 22 March

Director  Marion Potts
Dramaturge  Maryanne Lynch
Set & Costume Designer  Anna Tregloan
Lighting Designer   Paul Jackson
Composer  Andrée Greenwell
Sound Designer  David Franzke
Melissa Madden Gray
Susan Prior
Music performed live by
Felicity Clark
Michael Sheridan

Bree van Reyk

New Zealand Herald
Paul Simei-Barton
19 March 2009

Venus & Adonis at the Bruce Mason Centre
If you have ever wondered why love and pain are so closely intertwined, Shakespeare offers an explanation with his radical re-working of the myth of Venus and Adonis.
In the classical version the goddess of love seduces the mortal Adonis and tastes the bitterness that comes with the death of a beloved. But in Shakespeare’s poem the stakes are dramatically raised when Adonis rejects Venus and remains unmoved by all the seductions and arguments that the goddess can offer.
There are many theories as to why Adonis fails to respond to the enticements of the goddess whose fabulous beauty famously conquered the god of war. In this haunting production by Australian Bell Shakespeare Company, the reasons for Adonis’s reticence remain as enigmatic as love itself.
Director Marion Pott’s bold interpretation of the poem is set in the quintessential location for modern love the anonymous hotel bedroom. The goddess appears in the guise of two women who present their elaborate seduction directly to the audience who stand in for the part of Adonis.
A comprehensive catalogue of the various strategies of desire is enacted in hilarious pantomime style but the tone of the piece changes as the bewilderment and frustration that Venus feels is transformed into the anguished melancholy of unrequited love.
In carrying the rapidly changing moods of the piece, Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior display extraordinary vocal prowess clearly articulating the complex rhythms of Shakespeare’s verse and filling the words with an astonishing range of deeply felt emotions.
The power of their delivery is most strongly felt when the poetry drifts into song and the actors’ voices blend with a brilliantly evocative soundtrack – performed live by three musicians hidden amongst the lush foliage of a primal forest ironically seen through the bars of the hotel window.
Composer Andree Greenwell uses a strange combination of instruments and electronic sounds to produce music that is haunting and seductive like the Song of the Sirens.
My only reservation concerns the casting of the audience in the role of Adonis it is a clever device that effectively engages the audience but the absence of Adonis robbed the presentation of the physicality that grounds Shakespeare’s poetry.
However, any doubts were swept away by the stunning conclusion in which Venus delivers an ominous prophecy that somehow encapsulates all of the absurdity, mystery and power of love.
The Sun Herald
By Jason Blake
22 February 2009
“COUGAR-TASTIC!” Not a word Shakespeare would have been familiar with but serviceable as a quick summation of this fresh, energetically camp, musically ravishing adaptation of this paen to the agonies of cross-generational desire.
Penned in 1593 during a plague outbreak that temporarily forced the closure of all theatres in London, Shakespeare’s 1200-line dramatic poem tells of Venus, goddess of love, and her thwarted desire for Adonis (“She red and hot as coals of glowing fire, He red for shame but frosty in desire”). She’s in her erotic prime. He’s more interested in hanging out with his mates – until the Fates intervene, that is, and Venus’s “wayward boy” is gored to death by a charging boar. From that point on, the distraught goddess declares, all love will be “fickle, false and full of fraud”.
Director Marion Potts confines her Venus to a blandly attractive hotel room (a fine design by Anna Tregloan that evokes some kind of icky commercial sex arrangement) and has her embodied by two gifted performers, Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior. It’s a bold, playful re-resetting of the story and a clever amplification of Venus’s other-worldly nature.
Dressed in figure-hugging grey suits that blend corporate sexpot and domestic servant, the oozing ripe appeal (and all its attendant insecurities), Prior and Madden Gray suffer their erotic frustration most eloquently. The performances are mile-high (Madden Gray’s pneumatic exertions are hilarious) but their anguish is human enough. The role of Adonis is assigned to the audience, with whom the goddess locks eyes amid much heaving of bosoms, battering of eye lashes and lots of inelegant Reeperbahn-style writing. When they hit on you, it’s paralysing.
Musically, Venus & Adonis is a delight. A wall-length curtain is pulled aside to reveal a three-piece band (Felicity Clark, Michael Sheridan and Bree Van Reyk) playing amid the foliage of a tropical conservatory and Andree Greenwell’s score – Elizabethan-influenced yet contemporary sounding – is exquisite.
Madden Gray’s extended vocal technique (familiar if you have ever seen her deranged cabaret alter ego, Meow Meow) is used to great effect. The harmonies are secure and very pretty and Prior’s wistful solo all but stops your heart.
Sunday Telegraph
Jo Litson
22 February 2009
This feisty music-theatre adaption of Shakespeare’s poem, directed by Marion Potts, is a gloriously imaginative production.
Potts’ inspired conceit is having both Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior play Venus, the wantonly lustful goddess of love who tries to seduce the mortal Adonis.
The audience, representing Adonis, experiences a magnified, double dose of Venus’ wiles as she tries every trick in the book to get her man.
In a hotel-room set designed by Anna Tregloan, Prior and Madden Gray give deliciously uninhibited performances, priming and preening, shaking their booty and turning on comic tantrums that give full vent to Shakespeare’s suggestive language.
Composer Andree Greenwell has set several of the verses to exquisite music, with performers singing in lovely harmony.
From time to time curtains open to reveal the musicians sitting in a tropical garden. Divine.
Daily Telegraph
Alex Lalak
Wednesday 18 February 2009
Exploring the slippery art of seduction
Anyone who has ever flirted, tried to put the moves on the object of their desire, or struggled to close the deal in the love department will sympathise with poor Venus.
Gloriously sultry cabaret performers Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior own the stage in this theatrical interpretation of Shakespeare’s poem in which Venus tries – without luck- to win over the mortal Adonis and is devastated when he is eventually killed in a hunting accident.
It is a roller-coaster ride and the two actresses, together playing the role of Venus with extraordinary vivacity and power, alternatively simper and beg, throw themselves at the audience (representing Adonis) and throw tantrums, all in the vain hope of success.
The characterisation will ring especially true for anyone who has tried to master the sometimes slippery art of seduction, and some of Vensus’ techniques are ripe with comedy that is fully explored by the performers.
But it’s not all giggles and saucy winks for this Venus as she tries to bewitch the audience and, when things don’t go her way a sense of despair washes over the stage.
Despite running for a mere 70 minutes, this beautifully constructed production, directed by Marion Potts, is filled with intrigue and drama.
Sydney Morning Herald
Stephen Dunne
Monday 16 February 2009
It’s double trouble for goddess of love in bawdy tale of seduction
Venus, the goddess of love, isn’t subtle. She thrusts her breasts forward, arches her back, clenches her buttocks and gives a very convincing impression of a woman in the grip of lust. Adonis, fool that he is, would rather go hunting with the boys – bores chasing boars.
Marion Potts’ enchanting Shakespeare adaption gives us two whorish Venuses – Melissa Madden Gary and Susan Prior. They’re in a slightly shabby hotel room, oppressed by boredom and their floor-length hair extensions (design Anna Tregloan). While intermittently interrupted by the sound of what might be an elevator (clients inspecting the available merchandise, perhaps?) the real target of their disinterested seduction is the audience, as we (especially anyone in the first few rows) stand in for the reluctant dilettante Adonis.
Shakespeare’s playfully erotic yet teasing language (all those rounded hillocks, delicious lips and penetrating metaphors) is given much play, and the slightly too-obvious rhapsody about thrusting stallions is here made more explicit via a projection and documentary footage of horses. The famed “I’ll be the park, you be the munching deer” section (“Graze on my lips, and if those hills be dry/Stray lower, where the pleasant fountains lie”) is repeated for effect, but this telling liberates the poem’s insightful and cynical meditations on love from hoary Ovidian myth.
There are numerous songs, and composer Andree Greenwell works well getting those count-to-10 syllabic lines into effective musical phrases. It’s a very good score, played live by Felicity Clark, Michael Sheridan and Bree Van Reyk. Gray and Prior are both excellent, their catty physicality and fine, desultory singing voices constructing a believable panoply of vaguely disappointed, vaguely commercial lust.
Such prosaic passion, where the amours of the gods are reduced to a dingy commercial transaction, where all the attractions of Venus’s much discussed body become itemized, advertisable attractions, seem rather appropriate. No more sylvan glens, or lying face to face inhaling your lover’s breath: “She feedeth on the steam, as on a prey/And calls it heavenly moisture, air of grace.” But at least there’s room service and charge cards.
The Australian
By Alison Croggon
24 April 2008
Eros unbound shapes enchanted evening
Reading the scholars on Shakespeare can sometimes be unexpectedly diverting. F.T. Prince, who edited the Arden edition of Shakespeare’s poems, remarks of his early poem Venus and Adonis that “few English or American readers nowadays will respond to such happily wanton fancies”. Prince says this explains why, for all its artistic success, Venus and Adonis is considered a lesser work in the Shakespeare canon.
How times change. It is precisely this pagan lubriciousness that makes it seem so fresh and vigorous in the 21st century.
The poem is based on an episode in Ovid’s Metamorphoses, in which the goddess of love, Venus, takes the beautiful Adonis as her first mortal lover. Shakespeare’s innovation was to make Adonis spurn Venus’s advances.
The poem becomes a dramatic paean to erotic desire, frustration and sorrow. Its melding of delicate rhetoric and blunt colloquialism, forged in an urgent poetic vision, presages Shakespeare’s later plays.
Marion Potts’s stunning theatrical adaptation joyously celebrates Shakespeare’s Elizabethan frankness and the sensual eloquence and wit of his language. As in the poem, the dominant voice is that of womanly passion, amplified through the two performers who play the part of Venus, Melissa Madden Gray (best known by her cabaret nom de plume Meow Meow) and Susan Prior.
The audience represents Adonis, who these performers must seduce. And although the hero remains elusive, we become putty in Venus’s four hands as she finds herself suspended in torment between animal lust and divine love.
Madden Gray and Prior pant, writhe, plead and weep as they prowl around a luxurious 1970s-style hotel room.
Anna Tregloan’s stage, gorgeously lit by Paul Jackson, is enclosed in a curtained, low-roofed box. At the back is another curtain, which opens to reveal the band playing behind a barred window amid a riot of tropical plants.
The performance moves from self-conscious displays of seduction – the offering of the body or comically staged tantrums and tears – to a profound enactment of the anguish and ecstasy of love.
This is in no small part due to Andree Greenwell’s exquisite score, which sets some of the verses to subtly updated Elizabethan harmonies that take full advantage of the vocal talents of the actors. When fused with the opulence of Shakespeare’s language, it creates moments of sheerly bewitching beauty.
Here, as Shakespeare said in a later play, is indeed “art to enchant”.
The Age
By Cameron Woodhead
18 April 2008
Double trouble in art of tragic romance
Under Michael Kantor and Stephen Armstrong, some of the most successful work at the Malthouse has been the fruit of collaboration. Venus and Adonis is the first product of a partnership between the Malthouse and the Bell Shakespeare Company. It’s vigorous, imaginatively staged theatre.
Shakespeare wrote Venus and Adonis for the Earl of Southampton when plague closed London’s theatres. It appeared in 1593 and was immensely popular, published in 11 editions by 1620.
Based on an episode from Ovid’s Metamorphoses, the epic poem is a doomed romance. Girl meets boy. Boy gets girl’s juices flowing. Girl uses every feminine wile in the book, but boy is “unapt to toy”. Girl fakes her own demise; boy relents. Boy is gored to death by a ravening boar. Girl prophesies love’s joy will be mingled with calamity forevermore.
Shakespeare gives Venus all the best lines. In a clever conceit, the production amplifies the rapacity of feminine sexuality by giving us not one Venus but two (Melissa Madden Gray and Susan Prior), with the audience cast in the role of Adonis.
In a sparsely furnished hotel room, the Venuses – clad in figure-hugging outfits and sporting luxuriant fake tresses – primp and preen. Their thwarted attempts at seduction are played as comic burlesque. Breasts heave and lips pout, backs arch and thighs quiver. There are sultry come-hither looks and undignified simulations of rutting – all performed with unbridled energy and comic flair.
But Prior and Madden Gray bring the same physical and rhetorical assurance to the poem’s tenderness and bitter grief as they do to the poem’s parody of desire. The transition is effected partly through the ingenious use of music, with composer Andree Caldwell selecting various stanzas to be sung.
The stark vocal contrast between the two performers creates some haunting harmonies, though they’re better with the numbers that resemble 17th-century songs than the more modern stuff. Musicians Ben Hauptmann, David Hewitt and Ryan Williams sit in a lush terrarium upstage in a device reminiscent of traditional Korean theatre.
Director Marion Potts delivers a vital, engaging production, a finely poised mix of humour and heartbreak that manages to experiment and modernise without detracting from the poem’s timeless themes. Anna Tregloan’s design is, as usual, striking (but one quibble – an ill-placed curtain obscured some of the early action).
Venus and Adonis might have a fair claim to be the worst thing Shakespeare ever wrote. It can’t match the sonnets for metaphorical complexity and rhetorical power, nor does it possess the dramatic genius of the plays. But the Bard did use it as an opportunity to flex his prodigious imagination – and the artists behind this show do the same.
By Anne-Marie Peard
20 April 2008
Venus & Adonis
“She’s love, she loves, and yet she is not loved.” When Shakespeare wrote his poetic interpretation of the Venus & Adonis myth, he knew that thousands of years had not changed the dilemma of being a woman who loves. Malthouse Theatre and Bell Shakespeare continue to explore the nature of this myth in an original, complex and resonating production.
As humans, we are forever drawn to myth and tales that have existed since the first stories were told. How we tell them changes, but the eternal nature of human emotion and experience repeats though each generation of storytellers. Director Marion Potts and dramaturge Maryanne Lynch use the Bard’s interpretation to re-tell the Venus myth. What they have brought into our contemporary theatre is an intricate and powerful exploration of women and love. In a timeless hotel room, in the forest of a city, woman remains an untouchable goddess, a filthy whore and every powerful and powerless incarnation in between.
There is no Adonis on the stage. We, as audience, take on this role. We watch, are seduced by and reject the advances of Venus, played by, the perfectly cast, Susan Prior and Melissa Madden Grey. Our rejection is figurative as both are outstanding and it’s only theatrical convention that stops the audience from leaping up to join them. I’d watch Melissa Madden Grey cross the road. The amazing Meow Meow aside, Madden Grey’s range has taken her effortlessly from The Production Company to Pina Bausch Tanztheater. Can she do Shakespeare? Of course she can, and does it in a way that makes us want to keep watching and listening. Susan Prior contrasts and complements Madden Grey. Their performances seamlessly merge and separate as each new level of Venus is exposed.
In fear of repeating myself, the Malthouse design team keep getting everything right. Anna Tregloan’s set and costume encapsulate the complexity and timelessness of the myth, and the conflicting restriction and freedom of the women. Paul Jackson’s lighting continues to support and emphasise every emotion on the stage and David Franzke’s sound brings a remarkable element to the production, as the amplification almost turns us into voyeurs, rather than invited watchers. And he lets us hear Andrée Greenwell’s equally perfect composition.
Each element of this production is stunning, but as a whole there seems to be something missing. I found myself admiring the micro, because I wasn’t completely engaged by the macro. I’m not sure why. Perhaps I was trying too hard to interpret and understand, rather than just enjoy.
Venus & Adonis is original and captivating. Like all myth, we don’t really need to consciously understand it to get the full emotional benefit. Enjoy this work by letting the images seep into your unconscious and see what feelings and memories of your own appear.
By Michael Magnusson
23 April 2008
This co-production between Mind’s Eye (Bell Shakespeare’s research and development arm) and Malthouse is a music theatre interpretation of Shakespeare’s earliest work: a long narrative poem in which Venus, the Roman Goddess of Love, seduces the mortal Adonis but is unable to make him love her. She begs him to return after a hunt, but he is killed by a wild boar. The poem is rich in allusion; Shakespeare set it in the forest, using floral and animal imagery in his sensuous verse.
Director Marion Potts sets the story in a hotel room, where the goddess appears trapped by her own desire. And instead of Venus and Adonis, it is told instead by two Venuses (Melissa Madden Gray – of Meow Meow fame – and Susan Prior) sporting floor-length ponytails and dressed in 1940’s-style clothes.
Andree Greenwell’s music score conjures up a wide range of sounds and styles throughout, giving it an Elizabethan flavour but allowing it to sound modern, like pop music or cabaret.
A female and male actor might have given the story more tension. Instead, the mostly unfamiliar poem becomes a series of highlights; such as when Madden Gray fixes the audience with a big-eyed stare and, in a Marilyn Monroe-esqe voice, invites Adonis to “graze on my lips,” then runs her hands over her breasts and suggests that “if those hills be dry” he “stray lower” as her hands descend suggestively.
The strangest section of the production is done as mini film presentation. In the poem, Adonis needs maximum coercion but his horse, seeing a pretty filly, launches on her with a sexual frenzy that’s described like a sex-education lecture by the Venusian twins.
Despite a few confusions this is a lovely entertainment and an imaginative piece of music theatre.

Shakespeare’s Venus & Adonis is a subversive re-working of Ovid’s original love story. Unlike its model, it celebrates the most human aspects of seduction: it is vulgar, funny, sexy and whole-hearted. Its appeal is immediate and visceral. Venus is trying to seduce Adonis. Her attempts are fervent. They’re exhaustive. But Adonis isn’t remotely interested in her advances. She’s not taking ‘no’ for an answer…he really just wants to go hunting with his mates. The Goddess of Love is brought to earth with the crashing thud of human failure.
The creative team and I came to Venus & Adonis over successive development periods, each one exploring different facets of the myth and its potential theatre life. We couldn’t help but acknowledge its gravitational attraction and the fact that artists have interacted with it repeatedly over decades, centuries and even millennia. This in itself – this sense of eternal return, of cyclical fascination – is one of the themes we explore. Hopefully we present prophets of Love, repositories of Venus’s legacy in many worlds, and in many incarnations – not the least of which could be the experience of many women in many anonymous rooms, in many quests for passion.
Further to this, I became fascinated (because I was extremely moved) by Venus’ prophesy at the very end of Shakespeare’s poem. Part curse, part celebration, it struck me as one of the most truthful and exacting accounts of what Love is. Of course Shakespeare wrote it, but it is the grief-stricken Venus who at the end of her journey makes this breathtaking appraisal. It is as if the Goddess had to be brought to earth in order to understand her own cosmic significance. The experience of being human has ironically given her the wherewithal to become the Goddess and to define the concept of Love as we know it today. The end of Venus’ journey is in fact, its point. It is the beginning.
In exploring the text purely in terms of its imagery and Venus’ rhetorical prowess, we also noted that she adopts different registers and perhaps even different personas. She varies her approach, she adopts one tactic as she discards another. We began to explore the sorts of strategies that modern women use in relation to their sexual conquests, and in doing so, the complex world of contemporary sexuality began to emerge: how fine the calibration but how vast the spectrum between lust and love, artifice and nature, dissatisfaction and grief, rhetoric and music, sexual stereotypes and mythical goddesses…between hotel rooms and forests, between ordinary women and extraordinary aspirations.
Finally, performance is in itself an act of seduction. This idea informed some of our most basic conventions – not least of which is the casting of our audience as Adonis. It then became clear that if Venus the Immortal had double the power, two voices with which to harmonise, twice as many limbs to twine, the brain power and seductive potential of two (double the ammunition, as it were) we could allude to a Goddess of infinite being – and still keep splitting the atom, still keep coming back to the tiniest of units – a woman alone and utterly mortal.

Marion Potts

%27a stunning theatrical adaptation…
a profound enactment of the anguish
and ecstasy of love…’
The Australian