Reginald Theatre, October 4


Held in the wings while the plague passed, Damien Ryan’s Venus & Adonis became a feature film, instead. Twenty-one months later we finally have the play, and can luxuriate in its velvety prose, made all the plusher by incorporating several Shakespeare sonnets, lines from his plays and the epically erotic poem of the title.

Adele Querol, Top: Querol and Anthony Gooley. Photos: Kate Williams.

Set in the 1590s, Ryan’s play has Shakespeare (Anthony Gooley) suffering from syphilis, yet still bedding England’s first professional female poet, Aemelia Lanyer (Adele Querol), and poaching her lines. Historically, Lanyer was a contender for the sonnets’ Dark Lady. Ryan removes the doubt (often along with the clothes), setting up a world steaming with sex, ribaldry, rivalry and supercharged creativity.

The conceit is that Shakespeare presents a dramatised version of his epic poem for the Queen. Ryan’s play is of epic proportions, too, having a cast of 13 and lasting three hours. But it whizzes past on parallel plotlines of Will’s affair with Lanyer, his dysfunctional relationship with his wife, Anne (Bernadette Ryan), the death of his son and the performance of Venus & Adonis. It’s also about words. They are the play’s dense undergrowth, often pollinated with double meanings.

The epicentre is a long rehearsal scene, where Will directs Lanyer as Venus and Nathaniel Field (Jerome Meyer) as Adonis, while Christopher Tomkinson’s Richard Burbage narrates, aided by Kevin MacIsaac’s Robert Armin. Here is all the camaraderie, collaboration and petty conflicts of the theatre, the performance slowly bent to an increasingly exasperated Shakespeare’s will – until the rehearsal is gate-crashed by the Queen, whereupon Belinda Giblin magnificently commands the stage.

Belinda Giblin. Photos: Kate Williams.

Ryan depicts Shakespeare as living hard, writing fast and liberally stealing ideas. Gooley’s enthralling performance completes the picture of a man of towering intellect, boiling passions and quick wit, who’s less interested in applause or even family than he is in his art.

Querol’s Lanyer fizzes with vivacity, unabashed lust, sharp-tongued intelligence and frustration at a world of dunce-like men. She’s heretically dismissive of the Bible with its “talking snake on page one”, and its convenient blame of Eve for all that befalls humanity. Lanyer’s astonishing proto-feminist poem, Eve’s Apology, asking every Adam, “Why should you disdain/Our being your equals, free from tyranny?”, is movingly delivered by Giblin to end the play.

Meyer fills out the role of Nathaniel – the pretty boy who plays the female role in Burbage’s company – much more effectively than in the film, and Tomkinson infuses Burbage – the first Hamlet, Macbeth, Othello, Lear, et al – with a larger-than-life invincibility.

Shakespeare sees the ghost of Hamnet (Liv Rey Laaksonen. Photos: Kate Williams

The parallel story of the death of Hamnet, Shakespeare’s son, and the poet’s hopelessness as husband and father, is neatly intertwined. Anne might be illiterate, but she has the wisdom to decipher the world. When Nathaniel sends her the sonnets (as revenge on Will for making him play a boy) she learns via her daughter Judith (Akasha Hazard), who can read, that, atop the grief for her son, she’s not numbered among the heavenly bodies in the night sky of her husband’s loves.

Ryan directs this Sport for Jove production with verve and vigour (including brilliantly using a picture frame – to echo Titian’s titular painting – in the performance of the poem). Nonetheless, the pitching of some emotional highs and lows could still be finessed. Jay Cameron’s stately music dovetails with Bernadette Ryan’s charming period design, lit with candle-like softness by Sophie Parker. The production pumps with blood and revels in its own theatricality, while presenting the most credible representation of Shakespeare you’ll see.

Until October 28.