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Review: Venus and Adonis (The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon)

Some deft puppetry brings Shakespeare's retelling of Ovid's myth to life

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

© Lucy Barriball

The RSC's artistic director Gregory Doran first explored Shakespeare's epic poem with the puppet specialists of the Little Angel Theatre in 2004. Now, marking the 2000th anniversary of the death of its cultural forefather Ovid, the production is given a fresh outing, neatly taking its place in the RSC's current roll-out of the full Shakespearean canon.

And what a delight it proves to be. Who would have thought that one of the most enchanting and original productions to grace the stage of the Swan in recent years should come courtesy of five puppeteers, a narrator and a classical guitarist?

It seems so simple as to be almost childish. But the childlike qualities implied by the puppetry belie a beautifully-crafted theatrical gem, as clear in its storytelling and as captivating in its lyricism as the most overblown, expensive productions. The only pity is the brevity of its run – just two short weeks in Stratford's second house.

The Swan's thrust arena is redrawn as a gilt-framed proscenium arch, with a transverse raised platform in front of it providing the stage for much of the action. But designer Robert Jones is far cleverer than this simple set-up suggests, and the tale sprawls creatively across the whole floor and backwards into the set, adding depth and interest to the spectacle. At one point, the scenery even springs to life to play a crucial part of the story in a coup de théâtre that is little short of brilliant.

At either side of the set sit the narrator, Suzanne Burden, and guitarist Nick Lee, dressed in plain black and dimly lit to avoid distracting from the puppets. Both provide wonderful colour and texture, Burden in her beautifully spoken poetry and Lee in his flawlessly accomplished playing of some evocatively Elizabethan-style music by Stevon Russell and John Woolf.

Vince Herbert's careful lighting also adds much to the performance, but it's the puppets, under the direction of Steve Tiplady, who really make this show stand out. Handled impeccably by Louisa Ashton, Edie Edmundson, Rachel Leonard, Avye Leventis and Toby Olie, they are utterly beguiling throughout this brief hour. There's a mixture of marionettes, hand-held and shadow puppets at work in various parts of the narrative and the transitions are both seamless and logical, giving a thoroughly magical quality to the whole production that is as engrossing as it is inventive.

Part of me worries that I find the Venus and Adonis characters so sensuous – they are, after all, hunks of wood being manhandled by puppeteers – but it's a tribute to the talents of the performers as well as the craft of the puppets' designers and creators that they should feel so lifelike and grip the imagination so convincingly. It's a production that richly deserves its latest incarnation and cries out for a longer run.

Venus and Adonis runs at The Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, until 4 August 2017