David Ives’ Venus in Fur is a modern interpretation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella, Venus in Furs. Sacher-Masoch’s name became a legacy as the M for Masochism in S&M, Venus in Furs details such a relationship between the central couple, Severin and Vanda. Ives’ play takes these elements and revolves them around Thomas (Andrew Foster), a playwright-turned-director, who is searching for his leading lady to play Vanda (Jessica Robinson). The two begin a script-read audition, Vanda finagling her way into it despite being very late and Thomas weary and unenthused. The tension rises as if tumescent, the characters enthralling themselves in the parts they play, the power dynamics and lust breaking through to real life in a sheen of sweat and violent words.
The master/slave domination between the characters plays out elegantly and Ives critiques himself along the way through the dialogue of the characters in between acting the scenes. Vanda becomes demonised, blamed for being only what Severin asks of her and just when I turn a scowling eye on the production, Ives is right there pointing out Thomas’ misogyny. As the play’s heroine turns simpering and weak, a reversal of the power dynamic, reverting to what “should be”, Vanda’s outrage is palpable. ‘See!’ she exclaims, brandishing the script at Thomas, ‘this part is so sexist!’ I relax, feeling thoroughly vindicated.
Foster lends his talents not only to acting, but also directing (very life imitating art) and set design. As a result, the play is insular and intimate with only two characters and a close set. The seats line three sides of the theatre, leaving only the back to be unobstructed by our presence. This creates a thrilling fishbowl effect, as if we are observing this illicitly. Maybe we are peering through a crack in the wall. Maybe we’re watching through a telescope in a nearby apartment. Watching, waiting to see what happens. Foster often strides into the audience, sitting on the seats or leaning on our railings. I am a part of this. I am implicit in what becomes of our characters. In the immortal words of John Cameron Mitchell’s Shortbus, ‘After all, voyeurism is participation’.
The performances of Robinson and Foster is utterly enthralling. Robinson’s Vanda is a wilful, coarse and nasal-toned Jersey woman. Robinson spins this portrayal effortlessly into the Vanda character, becoming genteel, poised, with a continental affectation lilting her voice. She epitomises the variations of love: passion and fire, sensuous and coquettish. I particularly love the poise Robinson possesses. The graceful set of her shoulders in bearing with the confident tilt of her head give me a stunning portrayal of strength and verve. The way Robinson carries herself echoes this, being at once utterly fascinating and careful, an adroit tautness of core muscles and beatific posture as if to contain her true power lest it burst forth too eagerly. Thus, Robinson radiates, Foster’s Thomas spindling easily into her hands.
For his part, Foster turns Thomas’ broad American cadence into a more timid Severin. He hunches his shoulders as if already anticipating the lash of a whip, deferring with a bowed head to Robinson until Thomas decides Vanda has pushed too many boundaries and attempts to wrest control from her. I love how Foster has shown Thomas’ subtle defiance slowly growing. An angry flick of the eye, a clenching of the jaw as Vanda dispels the ambiguous nature Thomas has tried to instil the play with. Again and again, Vanda sees through Thomas and gets to the heart of what he believes are gently pipetted ideas.
As the lines blur between real life and imaginary, the sound design of Deb McGuire lends a dramatic intensity to the show. McGuire’s use of thunder to signify the deepening of the roles being played creates an electric thrill to rise on my skin. It ties into the character Thomas’ ambiguous metaphors. Having Robinson first enter having survived the deluge outside is brilliant in showing that in actuality, the storm never paid heed to the doors and the walls, it came with Vanda, ready to stir up trouble inside as well.
We enter the climax of the show, Vanda twists Thomas around with masterful manipulations, making sure he is always playing the submissive. My own role as an onlooker, espying the scene, makes my breath catch. What am I about to witness? Who is Vanda? She is a stalker, a rogue actress… is she Venus herself? Perhaps I should feel guilty, maybe even horrified. Instead, a gleeful mirth escapes me, a Bacchanalian revelry rising at the spectacle Thomas’ hubris has brought him. Ha! Vanda has created his end to be more ambiguous than ever he could have invented. Such a cruel twist of fate, so satisfying an end.
Watching Venus in Fur in the current cultural climate is a thought-provoking experience. Weinstein and the many others accused hang in the air like spectres as Vanda and Thomas toe lines of professional and not, exploitation and art with the quintessential casting couch emanating it’s dark vibes into the theatre space. However, this rather added to the atmosphere of the play; the demons of show-business ready to lunge out and consume Vanda, her unneeded ‘sacrifice’ to bathe in limelight. Therefore, the way Vanda is able to trick not only Thomas but evade such darkness, in fact bending the shadows to her own desires with her domination of Thomas, feels triumphant.
Venus In Fur has wowed me. I step out into the cold night air but my skin is still hot and my heartbeat rapid. Robinson and Foster demand attention from their audience in a way that congruently stays true to the flavour of Ives’ play. The push and pull of dominant forces, the thunder, the cemented strength of the characters, all leave me tingling when juxtaposed with the indefinite ending. I much prefer to think my voyeurism was interrupted, amidst embarrassed spluttering, and I can only imagine what happened next. What does becomes of Thomas? Of the play? Of the many mysteries of Vanda… I believe I will wonder and theorise about Venus In Fur for many nights to come.
Venus In Fur is currently playing at Circa Theatre until Saturday 9 December. You can find tickets here.