Fortyfivedownstairs presents Venus in Fur

Greenroom award-winning director Kirstin von Bibra explores steamy sexual politics.

By Caitlin McGrane

It’s always an exciting occasion when I’m familiar with the source material of a play. Venus in Furs is a novel that holds a special place in my heart: it was the first book I read after submitting my master’s thesis. I soon fell so deeply in love with Gilles Deleuze’s analysis of the text Coldness and Cruelty, that his photo has been the background of my phone for months.

In case you’re unfamiliar (and remarkably this all gets explained in the play), the novel Venus in Furs is a tale of masochistic love, devotion and obsession. Written in 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the story is an erotic fever dream about protagonist, Severin’s fetish for being beaten, subjugated, humiliated and manipulated by women wearing furs – specifically the upper-class Vanda – who he convinces to dominate him as her slave.

The play version, written by David Ives in 2010 and directed by Kirsten von Bibra in this production at fortyfivedownstairs, deftly weaves together not only the novel’s central narrative but also the thematic debates surrounding the work – particularly whether Vanda is a sadist and/or feminist figure. Ives’ adaptation deviates from Sacher-Masoch’s text by focusing on the casting of a play based on the original book.

Photographs: Sarah Walker

Brooklynite director Thomas becomes intrigued by an actor, coincidentally named Vanda, who bursts into his studio at the end of a long day demanding to read for the part of Vanda. As they begin to read, Thomas’ kinks and prejudices reveal themselves in insidious and sometimes nasty ways. We see Vanda’s power over him grow, as well as the sheer pleasure she takes in watching him slowly unravel.

Let me be completely honest: I absolutely loved this play. Vanda (Tilly Legge) and Thomas (Darcy Kent) performed flawlessly and faithfully captured Sacher-Masoch’s twisted and erotic relationship dynamics. All the way through I believed completely in how Vanda and Thomas were treating each other and was entirely captured by their debate on the text. The pair also managed to switch between American and British English with barely a glitch, thanks to Jean Goodwin as dialect coach. I was glad they opted for these accents, rather than going down the dodgy-German route, which always sounds forced to me.

The one area of the production where I wish there had been more attention paid was in the unpacking and challenging of Thomas’ misogyny, which to me wasn’t addressed as directly as I would have liked. There’s also a strange conversation about who Vanda ‘really is’ which to my mind could easily have been left out.

These small misgivings aside, I can’t reiterate my enjoyment of the play enough. The whole mis-en-scene was executed with precision from the velvet chaise to the half-filled coffee pot. I found the performance was only enhanced by the way the cast appeared to manipulate the lighting and staging – it made for a more naturalistic setting and the actors looked very comfortable. Proper praise to all involved, including costume and sets by Dann Barber, lighting design by Megz Evans and sound design by Linton Wilkinson.

From the moment the play started, I was excited, which can be a rare feeling in the theatre. I felt that Legge was going to be magnificent, and I couldn’t wait for Thomas to cop the full force of Sacher-Masoch’s perversions. There’s so much to enjoy in Lighting Jar Theatre’s production of Venus in Fur, I strongly recommend seeing it while it’s still on.

Venus in Fur plays at fortyfivedownstairs until 24 March.  Tickets can be purchased online and by calling the box office on 03 9662 9966

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