Productions of David Ives’ Venus in Fur have garnered both awards and acclaim since its 2010 off-Broadway premier. Until July 5th Scottish director Grace Barnes is bringing the show to life at the Darlinghurst Theatre’s gorgeous Eternity Playhouse.
Thomas (Gareth Reeves) is a smug, sexist theatre director, frustrated after an unproductive day of auditions for the female lead in his adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, involving themes of gender balance and sadomasochism.
Just as Thomas is about to return home to his fiancee, into the rehearsal hall stumbles Vanda (Anna Houston); she’s windswept, loud and crass, and shows puppy-like enthusiasm. With reluctance on Thomas’ part, they run through the script; Thomas as Severin von Kusiemski and Vanda as Wanda von Dunajew (the former wanting to be dominated by the latter).
Thomas is irritated by Vanda’s comment that the play is basically “S and M porn,” and her apparent ignorance is carte blanche for Thomas to treat her with disdain, at one point pulling her across the stage to where he wants her to stand (you don’t have to be a feminist to hate this guy).
But to Thomas’ confusion, Vanda displays a perfect understanding of the role once in character, almost as if she’s “jumped from the pages.” When out of character, Vanda’s willingness to audition in her underwear suggests a naivety, and her flirty coquettishness is cause for laughs (depending on whether you find that sort of thing funny). Some critics have referred to Venus in Fur as ‘titillating’, although the sexual element is there to illustrate power rather than to arouse the audience.
Gradually, as Thomas and Wanda become more immersed in their respective characters, Thomas’ grip loosens and he struggles to assert himself as the dominant director.
It’s almost superfluous to point out the irony throughout, with occasional hints of acknowledgement of this from Reeves and Houston. Both manage a seamless transition between characters, notable by the switch between American and English accents (of which they display an excellent command; much credit is due to dialect coach Paige Walker). Incidentally, Reeves does an uncanny impression of a young Richard E. Grant while playing Thomas as von Kusiemski.
But Anna Houston’s the star. She spins plates for 90 minutes; playing a role that effectively branches out into two characters, one of which is only subtly alluded to for the most part. Sounds vague? Experiencing it for yourself might answer a few questions…or more likely ask a heap more.
The ending leaves much unresolved, the last image before lights-down representing a satisfying shift of power between sadist and masochist, director and actor, and most crucially, male and female. It’s the unanswered questions that leave a play like this on the edge of your mind for days. Was Vanda just a figment of Thomas’ imagination after an exhausting day of auditions? Was his utter immersion in the story driving him steadily mad? Is it a portrayal of a dream turned nightmare as he found himself plunged into the manuscript’s pages?
Form your own conclusions. It’s Venus in Fur’s deeper layers that makes it complex and ultimately satisfying; not its sexually suggestive surface.