A young woman writhes in mid-air, her legs slowly parting, while her hand caresses her breasts suggestively.
This is not puppetry as most people know it. But Venus and Adonis is not the usual stuff of puppet shows. The decision to stage Shakespeare's uncompromisingly erotic poem at the Little Angel puppet theatre in London was taken by Gregory Doran, renowned director with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He saw a performance using 17th-century Bunraku puppets in Japan, and decided to combine this eastern art form with the very western tradition of Shakespearean acting.
The resulting performance dramatises Venus and Adonis, a poem telling of the goddess of love's attempts to seduce a nubile youth. Michael Pennington reads the original poem with insight. But he is clearly sidelined by his wooden colleagues. Many flesh-and-blood performers rarely achieve the level of subtlety seen in these hand-operated dolls.
When Venus slaps Adonis on his thigh, admonishing him for his apathy, her frustration is unquestionable. In a more tender moment, her foot curls erotically around his, while she glances coquettishly at him. When Adonis leaves to hunt for wild boar, his lover's disappointment is clearly visible in her downward glances. Such nuance of expression would be impressive in a human actor.
There are also neat touches of comedy. The aesthetic appeal of the delicate pastoral setting is counterpointed by a very modern Venus, dancing as though she had emerged from a Britney Spears video, rather than an ethereal carriage. And, when she taps her foot and sighs loudly in frustration at Adonis's lack of interest, she bears a striking resemblance to her puppet cousin, Miss Piggy.
But this is not a puppet show for young children. Sexual content aside, they may find it difficult to relate to the disappointment of unrequited love. But for an older audience, Venus and Adonis is proof that wooden acting need never be an insult again.
Tickets: 0870 609 1110