Reviews of The Loves of Mars and Venus given at the Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, Yorkshire, 8 June 2017
The Loves of Mars and Venus was an outstanding highlight of this year’s Swaledale Festival and a thoroughly memorable occasion. Celebrating a crucial piece of dance history, the production was brilliantly conceived, immaculately prepared and beautifully performed. The music and dance elements were delightful, the costumes were stunning and the audience was totally enchanted.
The Loves of Mars and Venus in Richmond
When Evelyn Nallen informed us of a Yorkshire venue for a showing of “The Loves of Mars and Venus” we promptly booked our seats for the performance on the 8th June at The Georgian Theatre Royal, Richmond, North Yorkshire. The theatre, which opened in 1788, with its pastel green décor and side boxes, is one of the oldest theatres in the UK. Having had a tour of the theatre on a previous occasion, we know that a) it was small and likely to fill up quickly, and b) its seating and comfort was only slightly better than a Victorian schoolroom. The cushions we took with us, however, were politely, but firmly, taken into custody by the man at the ticket office. What were we to throw at the performers, now, we wondered, if the show proved to be a disappointment?
In the event, the show was anything but a disappointment. As a well-constructed tribute to John Weaver’s ballet of 1717, this one-act presentation, written by Stephen Wyatt, contained all the necessary ingredients: drama, comedy, romance, and the main narrative thrust of Weaver seeking to infuse dance with passion and a greater expression. The original ballet undoubtedly had an elaborate stage setting and a large cast. With only three stage performers and three musicians, this modern, scaled-down version nevertheless managed to convey successfully much of the sense of what we believe Weaver was attempting to achieve; the constrained space of the small stage did not appear to impede the flow of action, and the necessarily minimal stage design and props was sufficient to support the essence of the plot.
The ‘anchor man’ of the production was, as might be expected, Mr Weaver himself, played by Stephen Spenceley who not only narrated the story to dramatic effect, but gave a passionate and agile performance with such vitality that left the audience only slightly less breathless than he was. Although nominally an acting role, his dance training was much in evidence on stage through his adroit swordplay, cartwheels, and various slapstick comedy activities and posturing.
The role of Hester Santlow / Venus was played by Chiara Vinci; a talented singer as well as Baroque dancer. Her opening aria, finely and richly rendered, set the quality and tone of the coming performance. As an actress her facial expressions and movements were beautifully effective and catered charmingly for the frequent and instantly changing moods of anger, sadness, coyness, flirtation and playfulness within the plot. Underpinning her dancing was a powerful technique which enabled her to present an excellent combination of light-footed delicacy with a very persuasive Baroque style and gesture.
The part of Louis Dupré / Mars was danced by Romain Arreghini. Handsome, strong, and confident, he appeared to have all the appropriate qualities for his role, and executed, with precision and stylish ease, some extremely demanding step sequences typical of those found in the professional male solo Baroque dance repertoire of the time. For those living in the north of England it is a rare delight indeed to see, live, a fine male professional perform Baroque dance in a style and manner that we amateurs all aspire to – but, alas, seldom achieve.
The elevation, accuracy of footwork, and positioning of both dancers was exceptional, particularly given the constraints of the stage. With such quality, it would have been nice to see more duets. Perhaps being over-critical of the costuming, we did notice that Venus’ dress was fastened at the back with a long zip, and Mars danced the early part of the programme in a backless waistcoat – surely he should have worn a coat?
The music support was exemplary. In the absence of a music score from the original production, Evelyn Nallen selected pieces by contemporary composers, arranging and fitting them expertly into the required moods and actions within the plot. The choice of instrumentation has to be applauded. In general, Evelyn played the melody line on recorder, at one point even playing two recorders at the same time! Jamie Akers played the Baroque guitar, providing good idiomatic rendering of the inner parts, with Gareth Deats supplying a firmly reliable bass-line support on Baroque cello – i.e. one that has no timbre, all excellently clear, with good separation of parts, and all perfectly audible in every area of the theatre – happily without amplification. It was a shame that the producers didn’t manage to use the theatre’s excellent “Thunder Machine”.
Katie Aske, Criticks Theatre Editor, British Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies
Samuel Butler originally built the quaint Georgian Theatre Royal in 1788, and with a capacity of only 214, women were reminded not to wear their hoops when attending. Squeezing into the upper balcony when seven months pregnant, was no easy task, but after shuffling into my seat, I prepared myself far a truly eighteenth-century experience. On the small and simply set stage, the story of John Weaver's original 1717 ballet, The Loves of Mars and Venus, played out.
Performed by the Weaver Dance Company, the cast of six, including three musicians and three dancing actors, barely had room to manoeuvre, but this did not hold them back. The talented recorder player Evelyn Nallen introduced the production, before joining the baroque musical ensemble, featuring Jamie Akers on lute, and Gareth Deats on cello. The audience was then met by John Weaver, played by Michael Spenceley, who pandered to the “beaus” in the pit, and “ladies” in the gallery, and all those squeezed onto the upper the upper balcony, who could not afford the better seats. Weaver explained his work as an actor, dancer and choreographer, and his ambition to show the theatre that dancing could take a central role in the performance. In a quick history lesson regarding the history of ballet in France, and Louis XIV’s technique for recording complex steps, Weaver explained his choice to create the first modern ballet – The Loves of Mars and Venus.
Unlike the ballets preceding Weaver’s, such as the French ballet du cour, or English masques, which often included speech or songs, The Loves of Mars and Venus was performed only with dance and accompanying instrumental music. Weaver brought the simple story of a love triangle between the beautiful Venus, her lacklustre husband, Vulcan (played by Weaver) and the heroic Mars to the Drury Lane Theatre in 1717. In this production Spenceley was joined on stage by Chiara Vinci and Roman Arreghini, who took on the roles of Weaver’s original casting of Venus and Mars, the beautiful and crowd-pleasing Hester Santlow, and the elegant French court dancer, Monsieur Louis Dupré, respectively.
A simple document published to accompany the first performance is all that remains of Weaver’s ballet. From this, it is evident that the original ballet was performed in six short scenes, with further dancers playing various supporting characters. In the show programme, eighteenth-century dance historian Moira Goff describes the scenes: “Mars appears with his soldiers and performs a war dance. Venus is shown surrounded by the Graces and displays her allure in a sensual passacaille. Vulcan arrives [and] she quarrels with him in in a ‘dance of the pantomimic kind’. Vulcan retires to his smithy to devise revenge with the help of his workmen, the Cyclopes. Mars and Venus meet, and with their followers, perform dances expressive of love and desire. Vulcan completes his plan of revenge against the lovers. In the final scene, Vulcan and the Cyclopes catch Mars and Venus together and expose them to the derision of the other gods, until Neptune intervenes and harmony is restored in the final ‘Grand Dance’”.
Directed by Jenny Miller and written by Stephen Wyatt, the narrative of this performance shows the actors practising, and then performing the scenes of Venus and Mars’s first meeting, their flirtation and courtship, Vulcan and Venus’s argument, the discovery of his wife’s infidelity and subsequent plan for revenge. In this version of the story, Vulcan plans to trap the lovers, somewhat comically, in a giant net. The stage, designed by Chris de Wilde, was decorated with a forest backdrop, a giant photo frame in the centre for the cast to walk through and hide behind, a trunk and a dressing screen for Vulcan to spy from, equipped with his large net, and catch his wife and her lover, complete with pannier, which swayed and jumped with every step. One of the highlights of the performance was Vinci’s singing – without words – to the music.
As far as eighteenth-century productions go, I could not have asked for more. While part of me is grateful that the performance was only an hour long, with my knees bruising against the balcony, I was thoroughly entertained by the careful combination of Weaver’s narrative, subtle humour, and the elements of his original choreography, all brought together by beautiful music. The performance, marking the 300th anniversary of The Loves of Mars and Venus, aimed to celebrate Weaver’s almost unacknowledged role in the development of dance on the English stage.
The Loves of Mars and Venus was performed by the Weaver Dance Company at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond as part of the Swaledale Festival and supported by Dyno and Rosi Keatinge. The Weaver Dance Company have performed the show at numerous theatres across the UK, hoping to bring life back to Weaver’s influential ballet.