The Venus Papers is a narrative poetic interrogation of what would happen should the goddess Venus wash up on the shores of twenty-first century Britain. Produced by Renaissance One,[1] Lydia Towsey’s free-wheeling poetic monologue sees Botticelli’s Venus encounters border control, pub culture, the tabloids, and Barbie.

Towsey’s production interweaves the story of Venus with her own life experience as a twenty-first century woman. Her personal stories encompass tales of her childhood, experiences as an artist’s model, and the joys and woes of motherhood. There are moments when these stories, running alongside and through each other, create glancing comparisons that flash with promise. Towsey’s forthright discussion of her own eating disorder as a teenager – “it happens” – is matched by an excellent poem titled, “Venus diets”, in which the goddess turned glamour model turns away food and faints at work but insists that it is “nothing to write home about”: she “feels fine, just cold.”

The Venus Papers admirably aims to use the archetype of Venus as a springboard into a broader discussion of feminism, female experience, and what constitutes empowerment. Towsey’s poetry falls within a tradition of feminist literature and performance that aims to rescue female archetypes from masculine fantasy. Examples of works from this canon include Marina Warner’s Alone of all her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (1976), which examined the concept of the Virgin Mary and its place in Western culture,[2] and Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber (1979), a compendium of myths, legends and Jungian archetypes.[3] This impetus is present in queer literature, too: Ali Smith retold the legend of Iphis in her short novel, Girl meets boy (2007), creating an exuberant, joyful celebration of queer identity and relationships.[4] The aim in retelling these myths is a kind of rescuing, a way of drawing attention to hidden female and queer narratives throughout history and creating a rich cultural back-story for modern women that can rival the great wealth of male cultural heritage.

Towsey’s writing is impressive. The poetry draws on a multitude of sources, some acknowledged, some implicit. There’s a cut-and-paste approach to story-telling that recalls the DIY zines of Riot Grrrl, and Towsey’s stated ambition to challenge notions of the “passive nude” draws on a tradition of feminist art history harnessed by Guerrilla Girls.[5] However, despite the great wealth of sources and inspiration, there were moments when Towsey’s performance betrayed a lack of nuanced thought. In particular, the treatment of class was uncomfortable. The Sun has not been a friend to women, but Towsey’s characterisation of tabloid readers as sexually voracious, vulgar, and largely working class was problematic. This negative characterisation of working class men was compounded in the performance of a scene in which Venus walks into a pub and is subjected to lewd and suggestive comments, performed by Towsey with a geographically unplaceable approximation of a “rough” accent. This was deeply frustrating, especially as, in one of her own personal stories, Towsey showed a clear appreciation of the pernicious effects of classism on herself and her family.

Towsey’s performance was bookended by two poets and a musician. Dzifa Benson’s Bottom Power got the evening off to an excellent start.[6] Benson’s poem is an incandescent, furious, tongue-in-cheek verse about Saartjie Baartman, a woman who, in her lifetime, was displayed in Victorian “freak shows”, and whose skeletal structure was co-opted by racist science after her death. As Benson writes: “young Saartjie / the ultimate other / Whose derriere / was the dernier cri / […]  of what a pair of buttocks dared be.” Benson’s poetry confronts serious issues with coruscating humour: without doubt this poem was the high point of the evening.

The Venus Papers is touring and evolving throughout its journey. I have no doubt that Towsey is learning a lot from each performance, and that audiences can too. However, Towsey appeared to approach her performance as though it was a sharing circle and two hours and a half hours of this, with only a ten-minute interval, would tax a friend let alone an audience of strangers.

The Venus Papers is currently touring the UK. For more information and dates see here.

 

[1] http://www.renaissanceone.co.uk/

[2] Marina Warner, Alone of All Her Sex: The Myth and Cult of the Virgin Mary (Weidenfeld and Nicolson Ltd, 1976)

[3] Angela Carter, The Bloody Chamber (Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1979)

[4] Ali Smith, Girl meets boy (Canongate, 2007)

[5] For more information about Riot Grrrl see the British Library archive at: http://www.bl.uk/learning/histcitizen/21cc/counterculture/doityourself/riotgrrrl/riotgrrrl.html; for more information about Guerrilla Girls see the Tate page at: http://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/guerrilla-girls-6858

[6] You can watch Dzifa Benson performing Bottom Power here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIzeHsA158k