April 22, 2012, by Peter Kirwan

U–Venas no Adonisi (Venus and Adonis) (Isango Ensemble) @ Shakespeare’s Globe

Writing about web page http://www.isangoensemble.org/#!future-productions

The tagline for the ‘Globe to Globe’ Festival reads “37 Plays, 37 Languages”; a tagline which excludes the Isango Ensemble’s U-Venas no Adonisi, the thirty-eighth ‘play’ (a dramatised version of Shakespeare’s poem) spoken in not one but six different languages: IsiZulu, IsiXhosa, SeSotho, Setswana, Afrikaans and South African English. This launch production, then, functioned as a kind of prologue to the Festival, breaking in the primarily English-speaking audience with a story that retained a substantial proportion of Shakespeare’s text and embraced a range of musical traditions, making this both recognisably South African and unmistakably global.

The Isango Ensemble is primarily an opera company, and this take on Venus and Adonis was a palimpsest in both its spoken and musical languages, representing the cultural diversity of Cape Town. The influence of the western operatic tradition was keenly felt in the vocal work of the company’s formidable ‘diva’, Pauline Malefane (also one of the production’s two musical directors), whose extraordinary range and power immediately established the power dynamic that would drive her interactions as Venus with Mhlekazi Whawha Mosiea’s Adonis.

Innovatively, though, Malefane was only the first in a series of seven Venuses, all dressed identically except for individualised hairstyles and facial decorations. After an opening choral piece, the company wound an enormous bedsheet around Malefane, which was passed from actor to actor during the wooing of Adonis that occupied the play’s first half. In this way, Venus was kept constantly fresh, wearing down the increasingly embattled Adonis. The change in physical identity was accompanied by continual variety in musical stylings, taking in street rap, showtime (with a comically smiling troupe of chorus girls), jazz (with the male cast members donning shades and clicking fingers), tribal chanting, folk laments and rounds.

The effect was one of a melting pot of traditions, aware of the future but celebrating an African heritage. Venus and Adonis became a continental myth, the lover against the hunter. The soft melodies of Venus were countered by the raucous screaming of huntsmen, at which the usually sullen Adonis came to life, brandishing a spear and grinning wickedly in anticipation of the hunt. At these moments, the visual traditions of African carnival came to the fore. Venus entered on a horse made up of the bodies of actors, with a horse’s head on a pole held above. This horse was distracted first by Venus herself, pulling hard on his reins and scattering actors’ bodies; and later by the mare, another puppet horse brandished by Venus’s counterparts. Simphiwe Mayeki, as the actor brandishing the horse’s head, comically snorted and neighed in disdain of his master’s complaints, before prancing offstage. Luvo Rasemeni’s Boar was a more hideous presence: covered in blood and screaming, he ran about the stage, snarling and stabbing at huntsmen, enacting a mythical version of the unkillable foe.

The tone of the first half was largely comic, a mood set by the hysterical appearance of a grinning Cupid in fatsuit and "Cupid" blazoned across his chest, who brattishly embraced his mother and accidentally pricked her with one of his arrows. Aside from the Boar’s intrusions, the comic mood continued throughout the first half as the succession of Venuses threw themselves at the petulant and helpless Adonis, wrapping their sheet around him in various modes of entrapment and coercion. Adonis was largely passive, unable to resist and reduced to silence. In one especially beautiful moment, as Venus feigned death, he and she became wrapped in the tendrils of the sheet, allowing him to gently lower her to the ground then raise her for a kiss, at which she awoke and winked deliciously at the audience. After promising her a kiss, the chorus of Venuses entrapped him in a sheet, forcing him into an almost intimidatingly oppressive intimacy with the goddess.

The second half, focusing on Venus waiting for and then lamenting Adonis, was much darker, owing largely to the introduction of Katlego Mmusi’s Death. Made up from head to foot as a grinning skeleton, with long blood red tongue slithering out, Death paced the stage, clashing together two sickles to ‘kill’ Adonis’s wounded dogs. The second half became a literal dance between Love and Death; played by Malefane for the entire second half, Venus was once more a powerful but frustrated presence, throwing the invulnerable skeleton around the stage but unable to do anything more as he skulked in the shadows. Finally, the male chorus gathered, all concealed under blankets. Venus ran around revealing the men until she arrived at Adonis; and on looking into his face, Death clashed his sickles one final time.

U-Venas no Adonisi was the perfect opening to the Festival, representative of its South African visitors while speaking to a broad and accessible multicultural audience. In this sense it offered a modern idea of Africa, globally aware but celebratory of its diverse heritages. Shakespeare’s poem became a tribal story, a myth of essential human practices, and a full standing ovation welcomed this newly timeless tale back to London.

This is a slightly extended version of a review originally written for the World Shakespeare Festival Project "Year of Shakespeare".

Posted in Theatre review