Venus in Fur by David Ives.
Directed by Caroline Stacey. Designed by Imogen Keen. Lighting by Verity Hampson.
Sound design by Kyle Sheedy. Accent coach. Diana Nixon. Stage Manager. Angharad
Lindley. Street One. The Street Theatre.
September 2. 2018. Bookings: 62471223 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewed by Peter Wilkins
|Joanna Richards as Vanda Jordan and Craig Alexander as Thomas Novachek
in The Street Theatre's production of David Ives' Venus in Fur.
An enormous, shuddering thunderclap, followed by an incandescent flash of lightning illuminates the basement of a deserted sweat shop, where playwright Thomas Novachek (Craig Alexander) has been unsuccessfully auditioning actresses for the lead role in his adaptation of Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel, Venus in Fur. Nature’s powerful force presages human nature’s encounter between will and dominance in David Ives’ fascinating gender drama of the same title as Sacher-Masoch’s tale of masochism, sexuality and degradation.
An expletive shouts out from the top of the staircase of Imogen Keen’s imposing set design. Aspiring actress, Vanda Jordan (Joanna Richards) stumbles upon the scene, cursing her lateness and fearing failure to be auditioned by Novachek. Brash and loud, Jordan appears utterly unsuitable for the role of the cool and composed Wanda von Dunajew of Sacher-Masoch’s novel. Comical in her forthrightness and hilarious in her fumbling, Jordan is a self-mocking assertion of the actor’s powerlessness in the light of causes of rejection. In an act of deliberate wile, Jordan removes her coat to reveal the leather underwear of a dominatrix, without a whip but with the erotic power to allure.
From this moment, Ives’s initial spoof of the audition process assumes a very different tenor, while still couched within the convention of an audition. Jordan dresses in the period dress she has brought with her and chameleon-like adopts the composure and presence of the nineteenth century noblewoman. It is a transition that both unsettles and fascinates Novachek, who finds himself inextricably drawn into playing the part of servant Severin von Kusiemski. What ensues is a power play that blurs the line between reality and fantasy. Although admitting to only having glanced at the script on the train, Jordan has arrived with the entire script and the nineteenth century novel and launches word perfect into the role. Reality and fantasy intertwine in Caroline Stacey’s intriguing and tightly directed production. Ives, with Brechtian deliberateness, brings Jordan out of character in key moments of Wanda’s empowerment of Kusiemski, and Jordan’s loud and bombastic persona shatters illusion. As quickly, she resumes the magnetizing allure of von Dunajew. Audience and Novachek are flung into a revolving vortex of absorption and entrapment as Jordan cunningly and manipulatively shifts the power of seduction and subservience from character to actress to the last triumphant moment, when Novachek and Severin scream to the departing actress and goddess of desire, “Hail Aphrodite”. Sexual power has played out its dominant end game, and the audience is left wondering, with Novachek, who is this actress? Why has she come? Who is the auditioner and who the auditionee? Ives offers no conclusive answers. Like Novachek, strapped to the heating flu, the audience is left to consider the questions and discover for themselves the answers.
Every aspect of the Street Theatre’s production is brilliantly realized. There are some outstanding examples of powerfully staged professional theatre emerging on Canberra’s local stages, and Venus in Fur is dressed in the finest theatrical fashion to conquer any stage. Imogen Keen’s stunning set design, built by Stephen Crossley and his team, sets the tone from the start. Verity Hampson’s lighting design, operated by Angharad Lindley, shifts the mood with subtle persuasion, accompanied by Kyle Sheedy’s sound design, operated by Seth Edwards=-Ellis. Dianna Nixon’s accent coaching and Emma Strapps’ movement direction add to the total professionalism of a production that does Canberra theatre proud.
|Craig Alexander as Severin Kusiemski and Joanna Richards as
Wanda von Dunajew in Venus in Fur
At its heart, though, are the performances of Alexander and Richards under the astute and disciplined direction of Stacey. This is a formidable team of artists, who have created an unmissable theatrical tour de force at the Street. Richards beguiles and bewitches, effortlessly and magnetically playing the power game to perfection. She embodies the seductive song of the Sirens, the enchanting beauty of Helen of Troy, the heavenly adoration of the Goddess of Love, the dangerous attraction of a Medusa and the powerful feistiness of the rough, tough New York survivor. Her performance holds the audience in its sway.
Alexander’s Novachek is a victim from the start after a day of unresolved auditions. His power as a first time director of his own play crumbles under the forceful presence of Jordan who then shifts his authority to subservience, bewitched and oppressed by natural forces over which he has no control. Alexander evokes pity and empathy, a confusion of reaction as he wields his characters’ frailties and desperate longings. His delivery of the account of Kusiemski’s beating with a briar by his sadistic Aunt reveals Sacher-Masoch’s beguiling fascination with the pleasure in pain of the masochist.
The complexity of performing double roles is surmounted with utter aplomb, as two outstanding actors grapple with Ives’ themes and hold the audience for one hundred minutes of magnificent theatre and skilfully directed ensemble playing. Venus in Fur warrants a far longer season and queues jostling for standbys. In other theatrical Meccas this production would be the talk of the town. Be seduced and give in to the power of Venus in Fur at The Street Theatre before the season ends!