Venus and Adonis, Shakespeare's first published work, is also one of his most erotic texts. The Actors Touring Company,
in collaboration with the Hairy Marys, a cult female physical theatre group, have adapted it for the stage.
Far removed from the familiar themes of love and romance, the poem captures the darker side of human sexuality:
lust, domination, and sadomasochism. Frustrated Venus, goddess of love, attempts to secure the attentions of youthful,
nubile Adonis in a tale of obsessive passion. An unremitting commentary on the sinister and possessive side of love,
Venus and Adonis is far removed from the sweet love affair of Romeo and Juliet.
Having already picked up good reviews and plenty of attention, this production promises to be something special. It
asks the very contemporary question of where art ends and pornography begins. In collaborating with the Hairy Marys,
Philippou hopes to have achieved a combination of the classical discipline needed to work from a text with their energy
and physical dynamism. 'The English approach to classical work is very staid,' says Philippou 'It's all about inward looking
references to other classical theatre.' In this production, by contrast, the emphasis is on breaking with the rules and on
letting go of the hang-ups and inhibitions which working with the revered playwright can tend to inspire.
The Hairy Marys bring an unconventional background to their involvement with Venus and Adonis. Originally inspired by
the dynamic and dramatic potential of Irish dance, the group has explored topical issues of sexuality and gender
from a female perspective. From work in cabaret and light entertainment, they have moved into serious drama, but
without leaving their inimitable style and individual experience behind.
It is known that Shakespeare wrote the poem with a rich boy in mind. The subterfuge this required saw to it that
inversion of gender was an integral part of the original poem. 'It's suggested that Shakespeare saw himseif as Venus. I
find this theory attractive since it adds so much more depth to the poem.' In casting Adonis as a woman, then, Philippou
is simply turning the tables on male and female roles which had already been inverted at least once.
The seedy twilight world of Philippou's creation marks a definite departure from Shakespeare's, but the director
maintains that in essence nothing has been added or taken away in moving the poem into a modem dramatic setting.
While the characters may have been updated so that we would recognise them as belonging to our own times, the
poem's references to the destructive power of love and to the darker side of human nature survive the historical
translation intact. In the director's words, “Our reference points are films, like Tarantino's or Mike Leigh's rather than
classical theatre. We use every form of expression we can think of: music, stills, video, lighting, and dance. The only
thing the actors don't do is sing!”
Some of the adapted work's more contentious moments have provoked strong reactions. 'The scene which causes the
most agitation is where two women rape a man. I think this speaks volumes about the Nineties: we don't raise a murmur
about men raping women, but when it's women doing it to men we have front page articles.' Philippou adds that the idea
is for the audience to go away from Venus and Adonis with a strong opinion about the piece. What matters more than
whether they loved or hated the play is that it should have been a challenging work. Philippou insists that if his production
is contentious, that's because the poem was to begin with. “The subject matter that people find objectionable was
already there in potential.” He hasn't souped up the poem, he says. 'Venus and Adonis lifts up stones we would rather
“There is no denying the power of this adaptation…Nick Philippou's seductive Venus & Adonis is a raunchy, fast-shooting
piece…it blows you away”