Venus in Fur is a complex and dense work. The Darlinghurst Theatre Company superbly meets the challenges of David Ives’ script, with a production that is sexy, provocative, sometimes puzzling in its twists and turns, and frequently funny.
Thomas (played by Gareth Reeves) is a playwright who, as he embarks on his first attempt at directing, struggles to find the right actress for the role of Vanda in his new work, Venus in Fur. This work is based on Venus in Furs, an 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch that explores submission, dominance and degradation in a relationship.
At the end of a long unsuccessful day, Thomas is scathing about the actresses who have auditioned—but one final candidate bursts into the audition room. As it happens, this bedraggled and seemingly disorganized woman’s name is Vanda (Anna Houston).
The power plays begin as she manipulates, pushes and cajoles the unenthusiastic Thomas to give her a chance to read for the part.
During the resulting extended audition, boundaries blur between reality and role-playing, submission and domination, pain and pleasure, fighting and loving, porn and literature. There are no clear dividing lines between desire, fear, anger, humiliation.
Thomas and Vanda are one moment enacting the dialogue from Thomas’ script, and the next moment involved in conversation—often a sort of reflexive commentary on the issues raised. Vanda critiques the play from a feminist viewpoint: he’s written a play that blames women for everything, she says. And he, of course, furiously denies this is the case.
She sometimes wears a long white dress that approximates 1870. At other times, she struts the stage in knickers, bra, stockings and high-heeled shoes—that is, before she orders Thomas to lace up her thigh-high dominatrix boots for her, a moment is paradoxically tender. At another point, they switch identities and he dons the dog collar she had been wearing; the concepts of submission and gender-based power hierarchy slip and slide all over the place.
The two actors manage quick shifts in mood and sudden switches between “real” and “scripted” characters, seemingly without effort. They deliver their lines with a kind of zest. Even though they discuss quite substantial concepts, their dialogue sparkles and entertains. It’s really breathtaking to watch.
As the audition unfolds in the rehearsal space, a thunderstorm rages outside. A sense of the crackling, charged-up external atmosphere establishes the edgy mood inside the rehearsal room. And it happens even before a word is spoken. Sounds of splattering rain, thunder, and nervy stringed instruments come together in Jessica James-Moody’s sound design. Production design (Mel Page) and lighting (Sian James-Holland) are equally unobtrusive but beautifully expressive.
Issues of power, control, violence, and domination—in intimate relationships as well as in hierarchical organisations—should unsettle us. The script doesn’t pull back from ideas that could be considered dangerous: sometimes the “victim” can exert enormous power in a relationship dynamic, sometimes a complete surrender of all personal power can have great appeal.
I did find myself wondering what sort of power shifts might occur if Thomas had been played by a physically large or more aggressive actor; or what would happen if Vanda were not so undressed so much of the time.
Of course, there are no easy answers to any questions raised by the production as it explores the complexity and ambiguity of these subterranean human impulses—and thankfully resists the urge to explain everything or to resolve anything.