Venus Is…. a show to see more than once (2011)

Review originally published on 9 September 2011 in Theatreview

Venus has long been renowned as the Roman goddess of love and beauty, sexuality and fertility, honour and pleasure, lust and desire. These aspects are all intertwined within her realm, making her the go-to woman when things go wrong.  In the guise of a white-painted caryatid shrouded by a curtain of aerial silks, standing in a pool of sand, Venus herself (Colleen Davis) initially presides over the splendid aerial theatre work Venus Is… newly devised by The Dust Palace, set in the lavishly furnished salon otherwise known as  Q Loft. Think Bacchanal minus food, wine and slaves, and you have the general idea.

Venus is…, in common with the company’s previous shows, is very physical theatre which intersperses cirque feats, burlesque sequences, audience interaction, sultry songs, bursts of dance, and cameo moments from variously garbed characters, all related to some central theme.

This time, the theme is the various aspects of “love” comprising the realm of Venus, illustrated by an array of texts ranging from poetically allusive Shakespeare to sexually explicit Tuppy Owens, accompanied by often suggestive interactions between performers. Underlying it all is a series of interactions between 60-somethings Matthew and Bianca (Edward Newborn and Lynn Waldegrave) whose relationship has reached a crisis point.

Transformation is the watchword throughout this show, with twists and turns and sudden changes of scene which keep the audience engaged with events and redirect their attention to whatever it is they need to be looking at while performers slip away from what is now ended. Venus, for example, becomes a sultry, sequinned songstress who delivers a series of bluesy, regretful songs made famous by Nina Simone.  The monumental satyr figure (Ebon Graymon) whose presence implies more sinister kinds of sexual interactions, is also the one who hilariously delivers voiceovers from what sound like romantic movies of an earlier era while plying selected audience members with a good deal of personal attention.

The four burlesque performers who are the core of the company (Mike Edwards, Eve Gordon, Geoff Gilson, Amy-Richardson-Impey)  are convincing in everything they do, though each has their own speciality: Edwards is the strong man, Gilson the expressive dancer, Impey the pole dancer, Gordon the master of silks. When their costumes switch from codified burlesque to everyday dress (and undress) they become “real men and women”  — and their various cameo deliveries of emotionally charged texts show them to be fine actors as well as masters of physical movement.

Venus is but one object among many in the lavish salon. While the audience is seated on a scattered array of old couches, sofas, armchairs, a chaise-longue, benches, and plushly-upholstered upright chairs, the performance space is dominated by a large bed with a very tall 4-poster wrought iron frame,  several hanging objects — a large metal hoop, an empty mirror frame – a chest of drawers and an upright piano (played by Flavio Villani), aerial silks which go all the way up into the rafters,  and a serpentine pathway which traverses the full space, threading itself amongst the furniture  and ending in the pool of sand.

Everything possible happens during an action-packed 80 minutes, thanks to the artistry, passion and commitment of the dynamically driven core performers.  Notable sequences include a knockdown grappling duet with astonishing lifts and balances in the sand at Venus’ feet,  and a sensually charged cover-all -possible-territories duet on and around the bed,  twining through its frames and up, down and around all its poles. Other notable inclusions are the quieter moments — poignantly-loaded mirror frame duets, devastating confessional conversations, instructions on sexual tactics,  and a wonderful solo from Colleen Davis singing while perched atop the piano. Atmospheric music accompanies the action throughout, some live, most recorded, in styles ranging from intricate baroque to smoky jazz.

Venus Is… is definitely the kind of show you need to see more than once. So much happens that it’s impossible to catch everything, and the text is so rich that you can’t possibly take it all in at one sitting, and more significantly, because it is an intimately staged multifocal performance, where you choose to sit will have an impact on what you experience.

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