Awaiting classification, 144 minutes

In cinemas January 20

Damien Ryan’s commanding film-directing debut opens with a quote from writer Peter Handke: “If a nation loses its storytellers, it loses its childhood.” We now know what that’s like, at least in relation to our on-stage storytellers. This loss of communal cultural bonding was like the thinning of blood in a body.

Rather than sit on his hands during the 2020 lockdown, Ryan took a stage-play he’d penned for his theatre company, Sport for Jove, and filmed it in a basement carpark. In eight days.

Anthony Gooley as Shakespeare. Top: Adelele Querol and Jerome Meyer.

Subtitled A Film about a Play about a Poem, it interweaves Shakespeare’s epically erotic poem Venus and Adonis with the grubby, tragic, humorous, libidinous, hard-lived lives of William and those around him. Dense, wordy, evocative and daring, it incorporates the lushness of several Shakespeare sonnets, sometimes delivered in the act of composition, the texts scrawled across the screen as the words come to him.

Director of photography Andre Vasquez has people looming out of inky blackness, caught by sudden candlelight that leaves half their faces shadowed. Often hand-held and mobile, the anthropomorphic camera is also treated as a confidante.

Ryan and actor Anthony Gooley craft a Shakespeare more credibly the author of supreme art than any I recall: a man intense in both life and art. The intriguing foil is Adele Querol’s Amelia Lanyer, the first female professional English poet; possibly the sonnets’ Dark Lady and Shakespeare’s lover. Ryan removes the “possibly”. Querol’s multifaceted performance seduces the camera long before she tries the same trick on Adonis, Will having cast her as Venus in a private performance for the queen. Christopher Tomkinson convinces as the great actor Richard Burbage (playing the poem’s narrator): formidable enough to lead an acting troupe through the travails of plague, public taste and court interference. Jerome Meyer’s Nathaniel Field, meanwhile, is surprised to be cast as Adonis, female roles being his forte.

Belinda Giblin as the Queen.

The rehearsals buzz with bitchy, warm, collaborative, arch, illuminating interaction, Will telling of his scepticism of unsullied love, while insisting that in a world trashed by plague, death and isolation, intimacy must be treasured. A visit from Queen Bess instantly establishes Belinda Giblin as matching the greats in that role: intelligent, erudite, perceptive, domineering and slightly frightening.

The death of Will’s son takes the poet to Stratford; to gloom and fury worthy of Macbeth. His wife, Anne (Bernadette Ryan), is not only racked by grief, she’s incendiary about Will’s infidelity. If the pace stagnates amid Anne’s unrelenting vitriol, it takes wing on Will’s devastatingly sad conjuring of Sonnet 33 and Jay Cameron’s score.

Back in London Amelia and Nat have rehearsed their love scene beyond the call of duty, but the performance before the queen is, like the poem, uneven. While Querol captivates as Venus, Meyer wrestles with balancing Adonis’s wetness and mounting fury. The queen rightly identifies the “hunt” sequence as the poem’s greatest, Tomkinson’s delivery leash-taut, before Giblin exquisitely delivers Lanyer’s great proto-feminist work, Eve’s Apologie, directly to us, impaling us on each syllable.