Shaking up Shakespeare

IN his lifetime, though it is hard to believe so now, Shakespeare published just two works - the long poems Venus and Adonis …

IN his lifetime, though it is hard to believe so now, Shakespeare published just two works - the long poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape Of Lucrece. Venus And Adonis, in particular, was a big hit in its time. In the 35 years after it was written, it went through 16 printed editions. And yet, by the middle of the 17th century, it had gone out of fashion.

Because it has neither the towering greatness of his best plays, nor the tantalising mystery of the sonnets, it has been easy to neglect.

The Irish theatre can seldom be accused of adopting an original approach to Shakespeare, but in the case of Venus And Adonis, the accusation can be sustained. In one of the most adventurous productions of the Dublin Theatre Festival fringe, Theatreworks presented, at the Samuel Beckett Centre, a stage adaptation of the poem by its artistic director Michael Caven.

It may seem daft to try to stage a 1,200 line Shakespeare poem when there are so many Shakespeare plays. But apart alto ether from the opportunity of hearing these beautiful lines spoken, the idea of staging Venus And Adonis has at least two attractions. It is, somewhat paradoxically, a reminder of the primacy of theatre over poetry in Shakespeare's work. For even in this Ion narrative poem there are strikingly theatrical elements.

The burden of the action is carried by direct speech, mostly uttered by Venus. There is, albeit in miniature, a typically Shakespearean sub plot, in which the erotic adventures of the main characters is paralleled by Adonis's stallion lusting after a mare. And most significantly, Shakespeare dramatises Venus's discovery of her lover's body in a way that is almost completely absent from his source, Book 10 of Ovid's Metamorphoses.

More broadly, Venus And Adonis draws our attention to a dimension of Shakespeare that is often neglected the importance of myth and ritual. Shakespeare theatre as a whale can be seen as an attempt to bring into the theatre what was being thrown out of the churches. He lived at a time when reforming Protestantism stripping religion of its magic, cutting out the liturgical rituals, silencing the echoes of fertility cults in the Christian story, reimagining the world in increasingly rational terms. Shakespeare took these discarded elements of the old religion and gave them a new, mare profound life in his plays.

Venus And Adonis is the most purely mythological of Shakespeare's works, and part of Michael Caven's project in adapting it is clearly to expose the roots in pre Christian archetypes of many of his later images. The influence of Ted Hughes's theories in his book Shakespeare And The Goddess Of Complete Being lies heavily on his staging, with rather mixed results.

On the one hand, the theoretical underpinning inspires a passionate sense of purpose that imbues the entire enterprise with a fierce conviction. On the other, it seems to lead Caven away from one of the delights of the poem: its element of playfulness. The poem's reversal of sexual stereotypes - a strong, sexually demanding woman imposing herself on a puritanical young man - is often funny. Caven's version is not funny at all.

Using six actors - Liz Schwarz's Venus, Malachy McKenna's Adonis and a small chorus of mythical beasts - he takes us into an almost pre human world of archetypes. More controversially, perhaps, he suggests those archetypes are timeless, that Venus resurfaces as the Blessed Virgin and Adanis as Christ. He certainly succeeds in his primary purpose of re establishing the poem in the Shakespeare canon, and of suggesting that, some of his main concerns - the instability of sexual identity, the attempt to make some kind of unity from the Christian and classical cultures around him - are played out with particular daring between its lines.

THE poem itself proves to be not only elegant, witty and deeply imagined, but also unexpectedly robust. The muscularity of the metre and the astonishing thought allow it to make the transition from the private act of reading to the public world of theatre with its integrity intact. Caven's adaptation is so intelligent and so skilful that it disinters the poem from the tomb of long neglect without breaking its bones. It comes to life, and will remain as a welcome presence in the mind, bringing a rich load of suggestion to any subsequent consideration of Shakespeare.

What Caven does not entirely succeed in doing is in establishing a fully convincing ritual space in which the action of the poem can unfold. If you want to make actors into archetypes, you have to find a way of moving that makes their human awkwardness disappear. If you want to make a myth come to life, you have to create a world in which the awkward questions of cause and effect simply do not arise.

Neither of these things really happens. Liz Schwarz's Venus is ferocious human passion of a woman inflamed by desire with the cold implacable distance of a goddess. But the rest of the acting never carries the same charge, partly because the idea at characterising the chorus as satyr, harpy, centaur and siren is too literal in its idea of mythology. The myths seem to come off the peg rather than being tailor made for the world of the poem. And the same true of Ann O'Farrell's inventive but rather fussy designs whose dense textures tend to enfold the action rather than allowing it to inhabit some kind of ritual space. Nature, virtually the poem's third character, remains a rather inert presence.

None of this, however, stops Venus And Adonis from being a rare and precious example of an Irish company's willingness and ability to stake a real claim of its own to the heritage of Shakespeare. So much of the approach to Shakespeare here is still so a apologetic and so timid that this baldly intelligent attempt to re imagine the place and meaning at his work deserves not just celebration but also emulation.

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole

Fintan O'Toole is an Irish Times columnist and writer