Venus in Chains: Review of Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Venus in Fur
David Ives play Venus in Fur (2010) has fast become one of the most performed shows in the USA of recent times. And now it has hit the Sydney stage, with the Darlinghurst Theatre Company.
As regards themes and narrative, this is a layered piece. Playwright/direct Thomas has just come through a horror day of auditions. He’s looking for an actress capable of playing his Wanda. When late comer Vanda bursts onto the scene it seems unlikely that she is going to be any more impressive. She is brash and vulgar and seems to have only a superficial understanding of the text. Yet, when he reluctantly begins to read against her, she suddenly seems perfect for the role. The play within the play is Venus in Fur, itself an adaptation of the 1870 novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch Venus in Furs; it is even suggested at one point that this story is itself a type of inverted re-telling of The Bacchae. As such, we’re given a seesawing collection of power moves as the pair becomes increasingly swept up in the play they’re enacting. But who is Vanda exactly? Ives is ambiguous on the subject. Is she a figment of Thomas’ imagination: the dominatrix he yearns to surrender to, just as his protagonist does? Or is she an extreme feminist who has taken exception to Thomas and the sexist play she believes he is trying to stage. Or is she an embodiment of the Goddess Venus, come to torture this mortal sinner? Given the layers of story in the play and the various thematic allusions, this may well be the most satisfying reading. But any two-hander’s success hinges on the strength of its performances, and here the Darlinghurst Theatre Company does not disappoint.
Anna Houston is electrifying in the role of Vanda Jordan. For her first entrance, she blunders in (late) to Novachek’s audition, and shows Vanda to be brash, vulgar and unschooled. She is pretty sure of herself and her abilities, but is she a bit stupid, we ask ourselves. Our jaws quickly drop, however, as Vanda assumes the role of Wanda von Dunayev, the German protagonist of Thomas’ play. Houston is nothing short of intoxicating as Wanda – measured, perfectly pitched, though, sexually alluring as this ‘1870-something’ mistress of desire. The changes in and out of character are seamless and Houston demonstrates much skill in maintaining her pace. Not only is she vocally exquisite, but it is also evident that Houston has carefully choreographed each moment with great precision; her performance can hardly be faulted.
Gareth Reeves is our Thomas Novachek – the struggling, slightly elitist writer-director of Venus in Fur. Reeves has the more difficult job of the pair, as the script gives him less to do. Nevertheless, he is unfaltering in performance and produces the necessary force required to match Houston and together they really pack a punch. Reeves particularly brings great chemistry to the pairing; of course they work well as a team, but Reeves gives much in the way of conflicting passion, which is both tempting and forbidden in its own right. Yet even Reeves (who is very good) can’t quite make the sexist outbursts appear natural. This is certainly not Reeves’ fault, but instead suggests that the apparent sexism of Thomas doesn’t quite sit with the character that Ives has eventually presented to us.
Director Grace Barnes, has provided an airy rehearsal space for the action of the play, that neither overbears, nor feels sparse. The play is elusive. Is Thomas a sexist? Is his play basically ‘S and M porn’ or is it a great romance? Who is in charge and who submits, and who holds the real power? Your mind will flip back and forth and that’s the delight of this production, it will keep you questioning until the very end.
Venus in Fur is playing at the Eternity Playhouse until the 5th of July. For more information see: http://www.darlinghursttheatre.com/whats-on/venus-in-fur