Sunday, August 26, 2018

Venus in Fur

Venus in Fur by David Ives.  The Street Theatre, Canberra, August 22 – September 2, 2018.

Director – Caroline Stacey; Stage & Costume Design – Imogen Keen; Sound Design – Kyle Sheedy; Lighting Design – Verity Hampson; Accent Coach – Dianna Nixon; Movement Coach – Emma Strapps

Performed by Craig Alexander as Thomas Novachek, playwright/director; Joanna Richards as Vanda Jordan, aspiring actress

Reviewed by Frank McKone
August 25

In David Ives’ clever and intriguing play, Venus in Fur (singular), we see fictional Thomas Novachek as author/director of his (Novachek’s) adaptation for stage of Venus in Furs (German: Venus im Pelz - plural), an 1870 novella by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. 

Good Reads at describes the novella: 
'Venus in Furs' describes the obsessions of Severin von Kusiemski, a European nobleman who desires to be enslaved to a woman. Severin finds his ideal of voluptuous cruelty in the merciless Wanda von Dunajew. This is a passionate and powerful portrayal of one man's struggle to enlighten and instruct himself and others in the realm of desire. Published in 1870, the novel gained notoriety and a degree of immortality for its author when the word "masochism" - derived from his name - entered the vocabulary of psychiatry. This remains a classic literary statement on sexual submission and control.

Novachek waits in frustration, bombarded by magnificent frightening thunder and lightning, for his idea of a woman who can play Wanda von Dunajew.  He complains that in the old days a 24-year-old would have been married with five children with life experience enough to play the part – but nowadays 24 year-olds just chatter inanely in silly high-pitched voices like 12-year-olds.  Vanda Jordan clatters down the steel staircase to the only audition space Novachek can afford, a concrete basement, sounding exactly like the woman Novachek does not want.

You don’t need to have read Venus in Furs to understand Venus in Fur, though it might be interesting to do so; but I certainly do not recommend reading the summaries and study guides you can find online of Venus in Fur before seeing the play.  Much better to be surprised by the unexpected.  All I will say is that role reversal is a key element of the play’s exposure of male/female relations.

The acting by Joanna Richards and Craig Alexander, under Stacey’s direction, makes the complex transitions between their ‘real life’ roles and their roles as Severin von Kusiemski and Wanda von Dunajew look easy.  The coaching by Dianna Nixon and Emma Strapps has worked so well that we bit by bit are drawn into sensing the depth of the changing relationship which is the essence of the play – David Ives’ play, that is.

Though I find whistles, whoops and hollers an unpleasant form of applause which has become the modern fashion, I have to agree that this production is top quality from set, costume, sound and light design through to the acting, all showing a true integration of all the theatrical elements not always seen even in major company productions.

Craig Alexander (behind) and Joanna Richards
in Venus in Fur by David Ives

 Then there is the play itself.  Ives has written in the best of American tradition – Eugene O’Neill and Tennessee Williams come to mind – where stories from the past become deeply felt expressions of character and disturbing new ways of understanding the present.

Venus in Fur is small in scale compared with Mourning Becomes Electra, or Streetcar Named Desire, but it comes to grips with today’s central issue of the treatment of women.  When Joanna Richards, playing Vanda Jordan as Wanda von Dunajew, throws her line like a javelin in the face of  von Masoch / von Kusiemski/ Thomas Novachek / Craig Alexander, saying how as a woman actor in his play she is “denigrating herself”, the modern state of tension in the power-play of men and women suddenly becomes reality.  We even saw it played out this last week at the top level of government in this country.  Chaotic men still dominate, destroying the career of the woman who was probably their best bet to retain government.

But wait till you see how this play, written by a man, ends.  Maybe there’s a kind of hope after all.  Though as Shakespeare wrote “True love never did run smooth”, love doesn’t have to be quite as painful as von Masoch suggests – if men and women treat each other as true equals.

Craig Alexander and Joanna Richards
as Thomas Novachek and Vanda Jordan
in character as Severin von Kusiemski and Wanda von Dunajew
in Venus in Fur by David Ives
Photos: Street Theatre