‘Venus & Adonis’: A South African twist on the Bard’s original

Mhlekazi “WHA WHA” Mosiea.
Adonis with his hunting horn as portrayed by Mhlekazi “WHA WHA” Mosiea. (Photo by Keith Pattison)

WASHINGTON, September 17, 2014 – Imagine, if you will, a big, beautiful Queen Mother being stung by the youthful good looks of a lowly commoner. But shift the scene from the River Thames to the banks of Cape Town, South Africa.

“Venus & Adonis” is a major poem that Shakespeare penned and published in 1593, basing it on Ovid’s epic love poem of the same name, which appears in Book X of his magnum opus “The Metamorphoses.”

In the both the original as well as Shakespeare’s version, Venus, the Roman goddess of love, is wounded by her love-arrow wielding son, Cupid and suddenly finds herself madly in love with Adonis, a human male or perhaps a demigod, depending on which legend one follows. Unfortunately, the end of this tale is not a happy one.

In a highly imaginative stroke, Mark Dornford-May and the South African Isango Ensemble have reimagined Shakespeare’s poem—to great acclaim—as a colorful, lyrical musical play set in their own native region. It’s being performed in repertory on the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s (STC’s) Lansburgh stage along with another Isango creation, a South African twist on Mozart’s famous opera, “The Magic Flute.”

STC artistic director Michael Khan was obviously pleased to be able to bring this pair of intriguing theater pieces to Washington audiences, noting that both Isango theater pieces borrow classics from the western written and musical canon, framing them” in a very particular time and place – modern South Africa… We are inspired by the ingenuity with which they make classic work relevant to their audiences, and are honored to bring them to the Lansburgh stage.”

Audiences in Washington now have a rare, brief, but extraordinary opportunity to experience a truly transformational performance that includes a troupe of over 30 musicians, drummers and dancers from the gateway to Cape Town’s Isango Township.

Upon encountering this production for the first time, what many unsuspecting guests of Isango’s innovative interpretation of the Bard may not initially grasp is that instead of hearing the tale unfold in English, they are also hearing the clicking sounds of Xhosa, Sotho, Setswana, and Zulu dialects as part of the narrative.

Pauline Malefane plays the role of Venus with such powerful presence that she has already taken the Isango version of “Venus & Adonis” to both the Shakespeare’s Globe and Hackney Empire Theater in London for a series of two world tours in 2012 and 2013.

The dramatic setting for this performance is the Lansburgh’s deep and towering stage, transformed for this production into a virtual field of dreams and occasional nightmares as Venus’ hot pursuit of Adonis the hunter of wild boars takes place.

But unlike a setting in an English countryside, Venus lords over her royal preserve in this version of the story flanked by an entourage of horn and timbale players. They cue each scene with a dramatic crescendo of voices, steel drums and movement that takes this reviewer back to his college days of black marching bands and the drum line.

As in Ovid’s original and Shakespeare’s retelling, Adonis leads the hunt for wild boar, but Venus pursues him relentlessly, even though Adonis feels he is too young for her and unworthy of her advances. What unfolds next is a wild and hot pursuit by the goddess on horseback and on the ground as she attempts to seduce Adonis with a legion of surrogates.

The seduction scenes alone in this production are well worth the price of admission. Venus hurls all her feminine wiles at Adonis until the sun sets in act one, chasing madly after Adonis as he rides his stallion. Her greatest fear is that she will lose her mortal lover to the dangers of the hunt.

Act two unfolds with a mass choir that showcases the vocal talents and almost kaleidoscopic musical range of the nine-man hunting group and the eleven women who cheer their exploits. It’s all a cacophony of jarring steel drums and an explosion of yin and yang energy.

But the mood turns dark as the looming dread of Adonis’ death takes hold of the scene, as Venus encounters the wild boar’s tusks dripping with the blood of its victim. What follows is the most riveting death dance this reviewer has ever seen, as Venus faces Death’s Demon in whiteface, his bulging eyes and his tongue drenched in bright red blood. The role is played brilliantly, and with a relentless, stalking madness by Zebulon Mmusi.

Venus calms this brooding spirit into submission as she mourns the loss of her mortal would-be lover. Her dramatic monologue is delivered in Xhosa, without surtitles. But the audience needs no translation to understand her misery and sorrow as she watches the corpse of Adonis being ferried across the River Styx in waves of white and purple petals during the production’s dramatic and surreal concluding funeral scene.

“Venus & Adonis” would score an almost perfect ten on this reviewer’s scorecard, but we only use four stars. So we’ll award it a four, adding one minor suggestion to improve the theater experience. The only thing that could have improved the experience here would be English subtitles projected on the back wall of the twenty-foot tall by 36-foot wide stage.

For that reason, this reviewer advises all theater goers to arrive 15 minutes early, taking the time to read the theater guide which explains the language context of the performance. It will enrich what is an already outstanding theater experience.

But be warned: Both Isango productions (including “Magic Flute”) only run through September 21, so do not hesitate. Get to the box office quick, fast and in a hurry via ShakespeareTheatre.org on the web or 202-547-1122 by phone, or you will regret missing this extraordinary cultural performance.

Rating: **** (4 out of 4 stars)

“Venus and Adonis” will be performed Wednesday, September 17 at7:30 p.m., concluding its run on Saturday, September 20 at 2:00 p.m. (matinee). “Magic Flute” will be performed Thursday, September 18 and Friday, September 19 and Saturday, September 20 at 8:00 p.m.; and will conclude performances on Sunday, September 21 at 2:00 p.m. (matinee).

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