Dublin Theatre Festival preview: Michael Barker-Caven, Artistic Director of Tallaght's Civic Theatre, interviews Royal Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Gregory Doran about the Company’s forthcoming production of Venus and Adonis, which runs at the Civic October 3rd-7th as part of the 60th Dublin Theatre Festival, and the legacy of the company’s founder Sir Peter Hall, who passed away earlier this month.

I caught up with Greg ahead of a particularly busy day for him and the world renowned company, with not one but two press performances looming for Coriolanus and Christopher Marlowe’s Dido, Queen of Carthage. But this did not stand in the way of him sharing his inspiring passion for Shakespeare’s rarely staged long poem Venus & Adonis, which we are delighted to be presenting at the Civic as part of DTF’s 60th anniversary programme.

Royal Shakespeare Company Artistic Director Gregory Doran

We first touched on the loss of the RSC’s founder, with the recent passing of Sir Peter Hall…

"As we speak", said Greg, "I’m sitting in Peter’s actual chair here at the RSC in Stratford. He was a Colossus who bestrode the British Theatre.  A visionary who was not only a great director of theatre and opera, but also a politician who fought tirelessly for the Arts. It’s impossible to single out his greatest production but his greatest legacy without doubt will be the formation in 1961 of the Royal Shakespeare Company, realizing his vision of a resident ensemble of actors, directors and designers producing both modern and classic texts with a distinctive house style."

Since those early days, the company has gone from strength to strength, gaining an outstanding reputation for its ongoing interpretation of the cannon as well as staging lesser known works by Shakespeare’s contemporaries, along with new works by writers of this age. Over a million visitors a year make visit the company’s three Stratford-upon-Avon theatres where, amongst other wonders, they have the only on-site armory of any theatre company in the world, hosting an array of breastplates, gauntlets, belts and assorted weaponry. 

I asked Greg why – with all of Shakespeare’s famous plays to choose from – the idea of staging one of his two long poems (Venus & Adonis) so caught his imagination…

"I hadn’t read the work before" he said, "and so when I eventually did I was immediately struck by its unique brilliance, its humor and the strange power of the tragic sting in its tail. I knew I wanted to stage it but how was the question? The world of the poem was so wondrous and heightened that I needed to find a way of bringing this to theatrical life. It was whilst on tour with Macbeth in Japan that I had the opportunity to witness Bunraku puppetry, a majestic tradition that gives equal weight to music, recitation and puppetry, and it struck me this would be a perfect way to serve the work. Back in London I found myself peering in the window of the Little Angel Theatre and delighting at the scale and detail of the puppets there. I began a conversation with Steve Tiplady and his team and we tried out a number of styles including table top puppets but eventually settled on the large, one third ratio mannequins that now populate the final production."

Greg clearly loves his puppet characters, and delights in the range of attributes the different designs bring to the stage…

"Venus herself is delicious; made of foam, she is lush and airy and dressed with leather whilst the handsome Adonis is more earth bound and deliberately wooden. The horses always catch the audience’s imagination and the shadow play pieces are fantastic, but I also relish the appearance of death, a big carnival puppet which we hide in the proscenium arch stage and who makes a fateful appearance as Venus envisions what might become of her lover if he does not obey her entreaties. We’ve also included a terrific hare this time out. So there’s a whole gallery of puppet stars to marvel at."

Greg recognizes that puppets and Shakespeare might not be an automatic match in people’s minds, but for him they provide a unique doorway into the story…

"Rapidly you forget they are puppets," he explains. "As they come into being before your eyes, taking on a range of complex emotions that seem to capture and concentrate the words and action, they cast an extraordinary spell. You marvel at the skill of the puppeteers, and delight at hearing Shakespeare’s shimmering lines spoken so clearly. There’s a lovely moment when Venus takes to the sky and hovers over her lover. When Adonis responds by rising into the air to join her, the moment of take-off nearly always elicits gasps of delight from the audience. It’s this unique power that puppets have over us, as we both see their handlers and yet seem to also see them take on a life of their own. Its pure magic and that’s why it works so well for this piece."

To those in Ireland who are perhaps reticent about attending a staging of a Shakespeare poem that they’ve maybe never heard of before, Greg has words of great encouragement…

"I really think your audience will be surprised and delighted by how simple the story is to follow. It’s told with great beauty, whilst also being very funny and in the end, deeply moving.  Having become something of a cult hit, I can safely say that it enchants and delights in equal measure and you come away with a real sense of wonder and the mysterious greatness of the work. It contains a distillation of Shakespeare’s genesis and is a rare gemstone not to be missed."

Having directed the only other Irish production back in 1996, I completely concur with Greg on this. A love story gone wrong, centered around what Greg memorably calls ‘a cougar and her toy boy" remains as richly resonant today as it did over 400 years ago. ‘I am only honored to be part of his great legacy" says Greg of Sir Peter Hall’s tenure. With unique works like Venus & Adonis, Greg is clearly building a major one of his own.

Venus and Adonis runs at the Civic Theatre, Tallaght from October 3rd-7th, as part of the 60th Dublin Theatre Festival - more details here