Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, after whom the term ‘masochism’ was named, through his 1870 novella Venus in Furs, provides inspiration for a modern tale of a fictional playwright’s adaptation of his classic story of dominance and humiliation, in David Ives’ 2010 two-hander of a similar, but shortened name.
Thomas Novachek (Darcy Kent), both the ‘author and director’ of this Venus in Fur is experiencing frustration after a day of unsuccessful auditions. While on the phone bemoaning the dearth of talented actresses to have performed for him, in bursts Vanda Jordan (Tilly Legge) far too late for her audition, and wearing a red trench coat while towing an upturned umbrella. There’s a storm outside, but there will soon to be one inside too as this whirlwind of a woman provides an unsolicited litany of the troubles she herself has experienced that day.
Thomas’ great script – if the ‘author’ does say so himself – requires a very particular kind of actress, so it’s hard to imagine that this chaotic woman could ever satisfy the casting requirements of the fussy writer/director. She seems coarse, presumptuous and far too informal in her approach. But Vanda is practically unstoppable in her lament and perhaps with some calculation, proceeds to demonstrate that she had been very much prepared for the audition, with a bag of costumes at the ready, and further more concealed under her coat. Before long, she is reciting memorised lines from his script and drafting Thomas into reading the role of Severin von Kushemski. If Thomas can’t envisage her as his character Wanda von Dunayev, then she’ll do anything to show him that Vanda and Wanda are one and the same.
As the aspiring actress demonstrates her understanding of the play and the character, she transforms into an entirely different personality, giving a reading of the part that is far more insightful than any other Thomas has seen. Drawn into her performance, she becomes more like a muse to him. Much like Sacher-Masoch had emerging writer Fanny Pistor to stir his sadomasochistic fires, Thomas becomes enthralled by the enigmatic Vanda and her intriguing interpretations of his play and the book on which it is based, quickly blurring the lines between reality and fiction.
Ives’ script is as captivating as Vanda’s performance. Slowly evolving from an amusing boy-meets-girl narrative, to an essay on sexual power and control. Director Kirsten Von Bibra makes excellent use of the expansive fortyfive downstairs playing space, with the entire gallery, including the rear exit of the building, becoming part of Thomas Novachek’s audition room. Despite the sometimes difficult sightlines of this venue, Von Bibra keeps the action moving brilliantly, never allowing the staging to feel awkward for the audience, both when in close proximity and at a distance.
Both Kent and Legge are charming performers, full of vim and sparking off one another. This level of energy is so important to ensuring sustained engagement throughout the 95 minute, single act, and these two vibrant actors certainly keep the charge alive. Further, the intricate definitions they give between their ‘real’ and ‘performance’ characters are masterful.
As the story progresses there is an exchange in power as the actress slowly exerts full dominance over the director. This transfer is fundamental to the story, but in Von Bibra’s production it never really hits the right balance. Kent’s Thomas seems more whiny and neurotic than artistically frustrated and aggressive, while Legge as Vanda hits the stage as such a tornado that she leaves herself with very little room to build her ascendency. It doesn’t feel like there is a shift of control, rather it seems as though Vanda has the upper hand from the moment she steps in the room. Of course, that is perhaps the truth of the story, but it lacks subtle and progressive growth in this production.
Dann Barber’s costumes flux well between the modern and period settings, as do his simple but effective settings. Megz Evans’ lighting design makes excellent use of the rigging and ambient fixtures, establishing numerous scene setting states and going from natural to surreal looks. Sadly, Linton Wilkinson’s sound designs are mostly obtrusive, distracting from the emotional states at play on stage, and poor in audio clarity. I’m not convinced the show wouldn’t be better without them altogether.
Ever evolving, Venus in Fur is a fascinating story of female power that seems extra pertinent at this moment in history, and while this production and the performances within it are solid enough, it’s some distance away from being of a definitive standard.