U Venus No Adonisi

The Isango Ensemble from Cape Town, South Africa, kicked off the
festival with a glorious interpretation of Shakespeare’s epic poem that
left me grinning from sheer exhilaration.

The compelling story of desire, power, attempted seduction and loss,
unfolds through a seamless medley of song, dance and music, drawing
on elements from Western operatic traditions, South African a
cappella, and contemporary pop music. This was Shakespeare with
marimbas, drums, beatboxing, hand-clapping, whistles, and improvised
instruments I can’t even name. An all-black cast on the Globe stage in
a multilingual production incorporating six of the nine major South
African languages, including Zulu, Xhosa, Sesotho, Tswana, English and
a sprinkling of Afrikaans, this was Shakespeare like never before.

It might sound like a recipe for disaster. And I confess to having arrived
with mixed feelings. My curiosity and scepticism were thoroughly
piqued by the selection. Who puts on Venus and Adonis anyway? It’s a
wonderful poem, but it sits oddly in the dramatic canon and there are
good reasons why the poem has never been staged, even at the
Globe. One challenge is that the poem is effectively a series of
beautiful, but static verbal tableaux, a monologue rehearsing the
verbal artillery of female seduction. Venus dominates the poem in all
senses. The passive Adonis barely speaks. Shakespeare in translation
performed by a group of South Africans, however talented, in the
place where it all began is a daunting enough undertaking without
choosing a poem that no one has successfully adapted for the stage
into the bargain.

As I stood in the yard, waiting for the performance to start and
watching the all-black cast kitted out in their quasi-Elizabethan but also
somehow unmistakeably South African costumes, I did find myself
wondering about the project. Shakespeare performed in thirty-seven
languages? A pernicious example of the continuing success of Western
cultural colonization? Or an eloquent testimony to the ways shared
human values successfully cross the cultural divide? A lot rides on the
idea of a Global Shakespeare Festival.

Few of these reservations withstood the performance. Nothing felt
contrived. All the elements were integral to the telling of the story. They
brought the poem to life in a way that felt spontaneous and homegrown,
while remaining completely consonant with its unique
emotional appeal, and with the elements of the story that we still find
most compelling today. At no point did the motley audience of Globe
aficionados, Shakespeare-lovers and tourists lose the narrative thread.
To judge from their riveted expressions during the performance, the
audience might have been firmly convinced that it spoke Xhosa. The
resounding applause it bestowed on a slightly startled cast at the end
seemed to suggest that no one remembered or cared that the poem
had been written in English. The messages of the poem were made
universal by wonderfully simple, but innovative casting and staging
decisions which produced an astonishing range of emotional effects,
from poignant sympathy for a woman spurned, to amused incredulity
at the powers of a peevish youth to resist so many eloquent arguments
to amorous sport, to the much rarer, but very real empathy for male
innocence menaced by overbearing female lust.

Led by a bewitching Pauline Malefane, seven women of distinct parts
and persuasive lyrical talents play the insatiable Venus. The lusty, highly
sympathetic female ensemble are complemented perfectly by a slight
but sprightly Mhlekazi Whawha Mosiea who plays the testy Adonis. The
decision to multiply Venus so as to create an overwhelming chorus of
formidable femalehood in all its stages of desire, loss and mourning, is
an example of the simple genius that makes this production so
successful. It exploits tragic elements of the Greek drama and
overcomes the issue of staticness. But it also contributes to our
experience and understanding of the play’s central issue: the frank
exploration of transgressive human sexuality and the radical
questioning of gender conventions.

At one point, straddled, pinned and wriggling beneath the weight of
Venus’s bosom, a distraught Adonis cries out ‘You crush me, let me
go!’. The shock of much of the violence is diffused, but not dismissed,
by the frequent resort to physical comedy. In another scene, Adonis
finds himself compelled to skip to escape becoming ensnared by a
twist of sheets wielded by a chorus of singing Venuses. Some of the
resonance of the scene derives from its association with the rituals of
Southern African marriage ceremonies and the amusing (but also
potentially distressing) public compulsion for the groom to
consummate the marriage while the wedding guests literally sing the
couple to bed. It is the play’s freeness with genre and convention and
the awareness of the (now global) contexts for performance which
make it true to what we value most in the bard.

Malcolm Cocks
Teaching Fellow, English Department
Royal Holloway University, London