Venus in Fur - review

No doubt they’d say that it doesn’t happen in Auckland. The director. The actor looking for their big break. A potential hotbed for seduction, scandal and behind-the-scenes innuendo.  As the role emerged in the 20th Century, the director – usually male – became the all-powerful auteur, with the ability to make or break, break-down, and ego-stroke. Wherever there is a power imbalance, there is the potential for abuse. The stereotype is of the patriarchal old-school director, prone to fits and throwing of props, for whom actors should be submissive puppets, ready to serve the director’s creative vision.

Thomas Novachek (Craig Hall) fancies himself a director. He’s a mildly successful writer who is tired of being the textual plaything of other directors who mangle his work. So for his adaptation of Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 work Venus im Pelz (which he reckons is “an essential text of world literature”), he’s put himself in the directorial power position for its New York premiere, and is looking for the perfect actor to cast as Wanda, who in the novel becomes the master to the masochist Severin.

After a fruitless day of casting, Vanda Jordan (Morgana O’Reilly) arrives without an appointment. We glimpse a storm raging outside through the windows of Rachael Walker’s dinky rehearsal room set, but Vanda has bought the storm inside with her, and O’Reilly plays the role with all its devastating potential. She is perfect for the part.

Thomas sees theatre as the place to experience passions that we don’t get to play out in real life. Though Thomas has his high-minded artistic ideals, Hall’s character is the walking embodiment of someone contained and repressed. Vanda represents a chance to indulge in the fantasies of the fictional characters that he is so drawn to. In doing so, Thomas relinquishes any sense of professional boundaries.

Thomas reads the role of Severin as he auditions Vanda for Wanda, and while in his character’s scripted lines he announces his willingness to be dominated, Thomas the director shouts at Vanda to stand where he wants her. Vanda lets him think he has the power for now. O’Reilly both flirts with and resists the role of ingénue. She presents herself first as an insubstantial flake, then, after getting his guard down, delivers penetrating insight into the characters and shortcomings of the story, and calls out the sexist assumptions of his adaptation. As they alternatively perform then comment on Thomas’s draft, their audition becomes an extended act of literary analysis as seduction, and a masterclass by O’Reilly and Hall in performing subtext.
Though leather boot fetishists will go away happy, if you’re looking for kinky, remain in your bedroom.

With these leads, and the direction of Shane Bosher, the production is sexy, for sure. But for a play based on what is “basically S&M porn” (as Vanda describes the novel), it’s a fairly tame affair. Though leather boot fetishists will go away happy, if you’re looking for kinky, remain in your bedroom.

Venus in Fur is intellectual erotica, and if that’s your kind of thang, there’s plenty to get your mind going. We get reflections on the Greeks, the Victorians, modernity, and a mélange of quotable quotes to impress/disturb your lover (“there’s nothing more sensuous than pain”). Of course, it is the playwright that gets to argue that conversations can be the sexiest of turn-ons.

With the intricate power play and slow-build verbal foreplay, the production rather rushes to the climax. It’s a tad unsatisfying, especially if you’ve worked out where this all going due to the heavy foreshadowing.

But the real playwright – David Ives – is sly where he needs to be. Venus in Fur questions how we should engage with texts deemed ‘problematic’ by today’s eyes, the gender double standards of the roles written for male and female actors, the various shades of sexual fantasies that have currency in contemporary society, and what all this might say about us voyeurs watching from the stalls.

Photo: Michael Smith.