Choreographing the Sonnets:
Volcano Theatre Company’s L.O.V.E.
by James Hewison
Subtle, it isn’t!
Bodies crash, knives are drawn, and kisses are missiles in Volcano Theatre Company’s physical theatre production, L.O.V.E.
In L.O.V.E. Shakespeare’s Sonnets are liberally ripped, cut, and repurposed into a visceral love-triangle between the text’s three main protagonists; the Dark Lady, The Lovely Boy and the Poet himself; all ripened with bruising choreography around the crimson bedsheets, and a soundtrack studded with Shirley Bassey torch song standards.
L.O.V.E is an old show now, and the link to the short YouTube clip available here is from a 2012 restaging, with a newer, and younger, cast.
It was first created in 1992 by two of Volcano’s founding Artistic Directors, Paul Davies and Fern Smith, who also performed the roles of the Poet and Dark Lady respectively, with design from Andrew Jones and invited Direction and Choreography from the late, great iconoclast of British dance-theatre performance, Nigel Charnock (1960-2012).
The production toured nationally in the UK to mixed critical acclaim, and some downright moral outrage; “an insult and an intrusion into the deeply held morality in the province [which] should be stopped at once” was one commentator’s pithy summation.
The show then had a turning point in 1993 when it won The Time Out, London, Theatre Award, before going on to a decade-long run of sell-out performances in some highly prestigious festivals in Europe and beyond (Festwochen, Vienna; Grec, Barcelona; and the inaugural International Theatre Festival, Buenos Aires, for example). This international exposure was often championed through the support of the British Council. Reflecting on their popularity and occasional infamy overseas, Paul Davies has suggested that “it would be a mistake to fail to consider that we were, perhaps, one of the unwitting cultural products of cool Britannia.”
“Cool Britannia” was the journalistic tag used to coin something of a renaissance in UK arts and culture in the early to mid-1990s, especially in music, film, art, and fashion. This coincided with the emergence of a wave of dance and physical theatre companies in Europe and the UK who were exploring overtly abrasive choreographic aesthetics. Volcano’s own brand of highly physical and political theatre slotted easily into that frame of self-confidence and irreverence, and L.O.V.E. was indeed sardonic and sexed-up Shakespeare. To quote Peter Aspden, writing in The Financial Times Magazine, the show was, “a vicious love triangle [that] brings out all the darkness of Shakespeare’s most rapturous work.”
I performed in L.O.V.E. for over a decade as the Lovely Boy and contributed to the 2012 revival as movement director. Performing in the show was a brutal experience, both physically exhausting and emotionally draining. In the pre-show build up I would sit in the auditorium, considering the task ahead, waiting for Shirley Bassey to sing … something in the way he moves. And on that mellifluous cue, I would indeed rise from my seat, where I had been masquerading as a member of the audience, attempting to flirt with unsuspecting theatregoers in the foyer and bars, and sashay my way to the stage. Even before it began, L.O.V.E. was a test of nerve, and cheek!
And I still have scars from mistimed collisions with bodies and beds, and unwise improvisational decisions around the choreography of the extremely sharp knife that the Dark Lady would use at the end of the show to exact her revenge on the two male characters, beginning with a highly choreographed and genuinely terrifying shredding of our underclothes. Equally, it was the only experience that I have ever had of becoming so overwhelmed by the sheer beauty of the words that are the central heart and choreographic heat of the production that, on one occasion, I found myself moved to stillness on stage, speechless but heartful, professionally lost but profoundly and personally found, in a deep realisation of the poet’s pain at the loss of a beloved other; “Let me confess that we two must be twain, Although our undivided loves are one” (Sonnet 36).
Collective memories of early rehearsals for L.O.V.E. were that they fully explored the “emotional and physical extremism” that initially drew the artistic parties together. The first phase of development took place in a studio in an old boxing gym in Port Talbot, Wales. Davies recalled that it was very much a gym experience in terms of the exhausting nature of Charnock’s two-hour-long daily warm-ups. It was also freezing cold, with the occasional muscled bodybuilder wandering inadvertently into the space to catch a surprised glimpse of the explorative action. Fern Smith recalled that another stage of rehearsal took place through an invited residency in Aldershot, England, a town famous for its connections to the British Army. There is something of the siege mentality in her description of days spent locked in the studio, disconnected from the outside world, wrapped in the imagery of the Sonnets and the sweat of rehearsals. Smith remarked that it is perhaps coincidentally appropriate that L.O.V.E., which Volcano have themselves summarised as, “anarchic, irreverent … and violent,” was made between a boxing gym, an army town, and Volcano’s own Swansea home; a place that its most celebrated son, Dylan Thomas, famously described as both ugly and lovely.
— James Hewison, 2022
Note: For James Hewison’s commentary on a video clip from the 2012 production, see “Volcano Theatre Company’s L.O.V.E.”
 Gail Walker, “Sex scene sparks ban call,” Belfast Telegraph (March 3, 1993).
 Paul Davies interviewed in 2015 by the author.
 Peter Aspden, “Does this look like the best way to sell Britain?” Financial Times Magazine (July 26, 2003).
 Davies interview with author.
Further Reading and Viewing
A selection of writings on L.O.V.E and the work of Volcano is given below.
Note: Volcano Theater Company has recently updated their archives materials for L.O.V.E. including extended performance footage, documentary materials, and reviews. Interested researchers and readers are encouraged to contact the company to request further information: https://volcanotheatre.wales.
Davies, Paul. “Physical Theatre and its Discontents.” In Staging Wales: Welsh Theatre 1979–1997, edited by Anna Marie Taylor. Cardiff: University of Wales Press, 1997.
Davies, Paul. Unpublished interview with James Hewison. Swansea, August 2015.
Davies, Paul, and Fern Smith. Inflammatory Material. Volcano Theatre Company in association with Swansea Metropolitan University, 2013.
Hewison, James. “Shakespeare and L.O.V.E.: Dance and desire in the Sonnets.” In The Oxford Handbook of Shakespeare and Dance, edited by Lynsey McCulloch and Brandon Shaw. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2019.
Aspden, Peter. “Does this look like the best way to sell Britain?” Financial Times Magazine, July 26, 2003.
Bassett, Kate. “Between the lines and the sheets.” The Times, April 10, 1993.
Cranitch, Ellen. “Hard lines for the poor adapter.” The Times, April 6, 1993.
Walker, Gail. “Sex scene sparks ban call.” Belfast Telegraph, March 11, 1993.
Davies, Paul. “Nigel Charnock, 1960–2012.” Volcano Theatre Company: www.volcanotheatre.co.uk.
Hewison, James. “Choreographing the Sonnets: Volcano Theatre Company’s L.O.V.E.” The Shakespeare and Dance Project, edited by Linda McJannet and Emily Winerock, January 2, 2022. shakespeareandance.com/choreographing-the-sonnets/. Accessed [date].
Updated May 9, 2022.