Fifty shades of great!
Venus in Fur, a Tony Award nominated play in 2012, is a David Ives adaptation of the Leopold von Sacher-Masoch novella Venus im Pelz.
Sacher-Masoch, a late nineteenth century Austrian writer, set out with the lofty ambition of critiquing his contemporary society through an epic series of novellas collectively known as The Legacy of Cain, sub-grouped under the six themes: Love, Property, State, War, Work, and Death.
He only finished the first two, Love and Property, before abandoning this grandiose idea (ideas of this scale being best left to James Joyce); however, from the first, Love, came his most noted work, Venus in Furs, and it is from this novella that he became the name sake of the term masochism. In his day, Sacher-Masoch was as well-known as E.L. James, only his writing had more literary merit, and still remains relevant some hundred years later.
This adaptation does a brilliant job of modernising the original work through the use of the theatrical device of a ‘play within a play.’ We’re first introduced to Thomas (Todd MacDonald), a playwright-director, who following a gruelling and wasted day of auditions is on the phone to ‘the fiancée’, complaining about the general lack of talent; when, in through the door bursts a late auditionee, Vanda (Libby Munro) who embodies every discontent he has just finished voicing. Through the sheer force of her relentless nature, Vanda manages to get her late audition as Wanda von Dunajew, with Thomas reading the part of Severin von Kusiemski. Confused? Don’t be, it totally works. There’s a certain degree of in-house humour that those in the biz will find especially delightful—just listen for those laughing the hardest.
What ensues is a complex game of power and position. Power is surrendered, refused, taken, abused, reclaimed, and ultimately lost when “the Lord hath smitten him and delivered him into a woman’s hands”. There’s so much in terms of power dynamic going on in this play. At the highest level, we have an actress at an audition—typically a position void of power–dominating a director, and a director willingly submitting to an actress of limited credits. Within the play within, we have Severin, a wealthy and powerful man in a painfully patriarchal society, willingly submitting to a woman—scandalous at the time no doubt. It’s an interesting and poignant (especially given recent national events) look at the powers at play between the genders, the possible motives of the abuser and the abused, and a glance at the paradoxical nature of sadomasochism. While tame by today’s standards, this is still the kind of subject matter that makes you think about where the line of ‘acceptable’ is drawn. Venus in Fur is the quintessential masochistic work, and remains relevant for good reason; it touches on and belongs to the psychological realm, and is still not fully understood.
The sagacious Andrea Moor, proving the best direction has its roots grounded in acting, has taken this very complicated play format, and brought it to the stage on the opening night without a hitch. The job of sculpting this play made easier by her selection of some high quality clay. Venus in Fur is a two-hander, but what a cast. Todd MacDonald, who has recently been less active as an actor since taking on the role as associate director of QTC, is once again treading the boards, and as expected gives a superlative performance—for 90 minutes without an interval no less. Libby Munro, a NIDA graduate of 2008, is surprisingly amazing, and dominates the stage. A relatively new talent, this being her first production with The Queensland Theatre Company; and yet, she has the on stage presence of a veteran, and gives a truly consummate performance. Both MacDonald and Munro slipped flawlessly between the personas of New Yorkers and that of their in-play character parts: for MacDonald, something vaguely Germanic; and Munro, a nineteenth century Continental woman. Melissa Angew, as voice/dialect consultant, has done an amazing job here; Munro comes bursting through the door as if straight out of Queens.
The set design (Simone Romaniuk) along with the lighting design (David Walters) became intrinsic to the play, as both were incorporated into the action, with the character Vanda setting the mood for the play reading by adjusting the warehouse lighting directly from the switchboard. Composition and sound design by Guy Webster was subtle at times, and punchy and powerful at others, punctuating the action, and added significantly to the productions quality.
Though it might be a little too early in the year to call it; what the hell, I’m going to name Venus in Fur ‘production of the year’. Whether that prediction holds true come December or not, this show is a must see. Munro is definitely one to keep an eye on; I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot more of this huge emerging talent.
Venus in Fur will be playing at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC till 27 July.