The Venus Papers Stage Show (Attenborough Arts, Leicester, 4 February 2017)


– Reviewed by Sally Jack

Writer and performer Lydia Towsey
Paintings and artwork Scott Bridgwood
Co-directors Rachel Mars and Nick Field
Music Director Dave Dhonau
Music and vocals Ola Szmidt
Set design Kate Unwin
Choreographer Louise Katerega
Tour produced by Renaissance One

How things change:
September 2015: Leicester-based poet Lydia Towsey launches her first collection, The Venus Papers (Burning Eye Books) at Attenborough Arts, accompanied by an exhibition of paintings of the same name by figurative artist (and Lydia’s partner) Scott Bridgwood.

February 2017:  Back at Attenborough Arts, Lydia performs her stage show The Venus Papers, a theatrical interpretation of her collection.  Scott’s paintings, including new pieces, are displayed in the new Gallery 3.

With key themes of The Venus Papers including the experience of woman as immigrant and outsider, it is now even more of an issue that much has changed for those who find themselves travelling to new lands.  Although written pre-Brexit, pre-immigration-banning executive order, Lydia’s words have a new potency. Yes, how things change.

For this performance, Lydia and her co-directors Rachel Mars and Nick Field focus on the heart of The Venus Papers’ sequence, as Venus arrives, her experiences in how she is viewed, how she finds work and her departure. Poems are not always performed in full; extracts are sometimes brought together creating a story to complement the on-the-page collection. Lydia, already a polished performance poet with an accessible and relaxed style, now extends her range as she incorporates movement, song and characterisation.

Opportunities to view Scott’s paintings before and after the show (and including splendid pink Mr Kipling Fondant Fancies), give further thought-provoking layers to this performance.

On stage, designer Kate Unwin’s pop-up book of Venus scenes gives Lydia a point of reference throughout, carried through to the large ‘paper’ fan of a clam shell, a wall of sketches and memories, and lights festooning the set like electric seaweed.

Music director Dave Dhonau and musician and vocalist Ola Szmidt join Lydia, and provide an almost continuous eerie soundscape. Interplay between the three artists is particularly effective during ‘Interview with a Barbie’, a deliciously dark exploration of another impossibly ‘perfect’ female icon, and what may lurk behind her plastic facade:

Barbie, is that murder in your eyes …
or are you just thinking about Ken?
And how is the sex?

Back to Venus, goddess from the mountain top. As she made her entrance on a Cypriot beach, Botticelli’s Venus was the art world’s first full size, non-biblical female nude, and is heavy with symbolism. Botticelli’s painting famously lacks perspective, Venus’s body is out of proportion and stands in an almost impossible pose.  Venus is the equivalent of a photoshopped ideal of the ‘perfect’ female body to which we can aspire but never achieve.

Body image and society’s ideas of ‘the norm’ feature significantly in The Venus Papers. On arrival on a British beach, Lydia’s Venus is immediately judged on her appearance, her clothing (lack of) and where she may have come from.

She is steered to a career as a glamour model:

They ask her if no clothes
will be a problem. Venus says no –

she’s used to it,
days at sea and not a stitch.

Lydia clearly relishes performing ‘I Shall Say’, a call to celebrate language rather than fear it as she fully embraces ‘cock’ words.

Lydia’s strength as a poet and performer is her knack for not using obvious words or images, but they are always the right words.  Her poem including experiences whilst breastfeeding, for example (not in the original collection): feeling the ‘shudder’ as her baby starts to feed sounds odd, but is exactly how I remember it. Punning and playing with language, the themes of Lydia’s poetry nag at you long after the performance, often quirky and humorous:

Keep my gherkins under wraps …

Cabbages in a cut-glass dish…

The Venus Papers show is in the early days of touring. Some of the sound effects were a little distracting, such as a distant ringing phone long before the relating poem began, but that is a minor point in what is an accomplished and absorbing performance.

With her Botticelli leggings, silver lame dress and pink hair aflame, Lydia skilfully guided this capacity audience on Venus’ voyage of discovery.

(Image by David Wilson Clarke)