VENUS IN FUR
11/11/2017 - 09/12/2017
Sexy. Smart. Mischievous. Erotic.
Currently playing to rave reviews on the West End Venus in Fur is a whip smart, provocative and sexy exploration of power dynamics, sexual politics and human relationships.
Thomas, a young playwright-turned director, has adapted a scandalous 19th century novella for the stage. Known as the birthplace of sado-masochism, Venus in Fur charts an obsessive relationship between a man and the mistress to whom he becomes enslaved.
Eager to connect with contemporary audiences, Thomas wants to cash in on the success of Fifty Shades of Grey. But he’s finding it hard to cast his leading lady. Enter Vanda, an actress desperate to impress. As Thomas reluctantly agrees to audition her desire twists and turns on itself, blurring the lines between play-acting and reality.
Nominated for Best Play at the 2012 Tony awards, Venus in Fur is a tantalising and unsettling exploration of sexual politics both on and offstage – an absolute audience dazzler.
“A delicious study of sexual power dynamics” – LA Times
“Seriously smart and very funny” – NY Times
CIRCA TWO, 1 Taranaki St
11 November – 9 December 2017
Tues – Sat 7.30pm
$25 – $52
Thomas: Andrew Foster
Vanda: Jessica Robinson
Impressive multifaceted performances
Review by John Smythe 22nd Nov 2017
In David Ives’ Venus in Fur, writer-director Thomas Novachek has adapted the 1870 novel Venus in Furs by the Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. In the course of auditioning Vanda Jordan for the role of Wanda von Dunayev, Thomas reads in as Severin von Kushemski, her would-be masochist (as we would label it now, thanks to Masoch), and Vanda suggests he should play the role himself.
In this Circa production, when the actor cast as Thomas was offered a more lucrative film role just before rehearsals began, director Andrew Foster (according to his programme note) “spent a desperate week trying to recast the play. Jessica Robinson had been my choice for Vanda ever since I first read the play. I just love her onstage. A conversation we’d had at the photoshoot for the poster almost a year earlier came back to haunt me, ‘Why don’t you play Thomas?’ she’d said. Her character in the play asks the very same of Thomas. And so a bizarre life/art metafiction began.”
With Miranda Manasiadis as ‘Outside Eye’, it works a treat. To add to his workload, Foster also designs the set: a simply furnished space with a grungy office-cum lighting gear storeroom tucked in at the back. His Thomas also ventures into the auditorium, suggesting they have the luxury of auditioning in an actual theatre (although the ‘street entrance’ leads straight into the space).
Deb McGuire’s lighting design adds to the meta-theatrical conceits by juxtaposing neon tubes with stage lighting. And Alison Reid’s costume designs deftly transform the New York off-off-Broadway hustlers to 19th Century Austrian nobility, with most of the key items plucked from Vanda’s seemingly bottomless bag.
Jessica Robinson is superb as both the coarse broad Vanda and the still-waters-run-deep sophisticate Wanda, drawing us into a growing appreciation of Vanda’s intelligence and streetwise wits while mesmerising us with Wanda von Dunayev’s sensuous sadism. Having established Thomas as an arrogant ‘know-all’ with a high opinion of himself and a low opinion of actresses, Andrew Foster also morphs convincingly into the self-abasing Severin von Kushemski. Together they are utterly absorbing with their tentative assessing of each other, quests for status and conscious game-playing.
As reality morphs into fantasy and back again, then merges inextricably, we are constantly teased into trying to discern who is manipulating whom; who is directing whom; who is acting and who is being ‘real’; who is dominant and who is submissive in any given sequence …
As for what exactly has brought Vanda here and is motivating her unpredictable and volatile behaviours, Ives chooses not to resolve that with a clear reveal. And given by the end we are still trying to guess why Vanda is doing this, it feels less that satisfactory to be left work out for ourselves both her back story and what will happen next.
The script acknowledges credibility questions but doesn’t entirely answer them – e.g. stage lighting is conveniently available at the flick of a switch; both actors can slip into their roles off script, which of course is good for eye-contact and their intensifying chemistry, and [spoiler alert] a hand-gun is introduced towards the end with no explanation as to why anyone is ‘carrying’. For me this is an unjustified cliché-too-far that completely undermines the psycho-sexual dynamics at the play’s core [ends]. It destroys my belief in what’s happening and makes me re-evaluate the lightning flashes and thunder crack punctuation throughout which have unsubtly intimated Gothic Horror in an unnecessary attempt to build the tension.
As for the play’s sexual politics, Ives has the proverbial bob both ways, having Vanda challenge the sexism she claims is inherent in Thomas’s adaptation and/or in the Sacher-Masoch novel while leaving us to judge whether this is a serious feminist critique or just another way of demeaning him with psychological abuse. When Vanda asserts that Severin’s formative childhood experience of being whipped made the novel “all about child abuse”, Thomas rails against our insistence on reducing everything to “nothing more than examples of something” but he is more inclined to crumble at the sexism charges. Where Ives stands on all that remains a mystery – and is arguably irrelevant.
Most impressive is the way Robinson and Foster slip so effortlessly between their 21st and 19th century characters and sensibilities – somewhat redolent, in terms of content as well, of Jean Genet’s consciously theatrical psycho-sociological case study The Maids (last seen in Wellington five months ago). Comparison with the current BATS/STAB show Body Double (finishing on Saturday) is also relevant.
We have yet to see Roman Polanski’s French film version, co-adapted by David Ives, but for me the magic of a multifaceted relationship evolving in real time and playing out live in an intimate theatre cannot be surpassed. On that score Venus in Fur is well worth seeing.
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A cleverly constructed play, brilliantly executed
Review by Ewen Coleman 13th Nov 2017
When a playwright decides to use the device of setting a play within a play to tell their story, it can be complex and difficult to follow, but when the roles of the actors in one cross over to the next, it becomes even more challenging.
Yet Circa Theatre’s current studio production of David Ives’ Venus In Fur has all this and more in a cleverly constructed play in a production that is brilliantly played out on the stage. [More]
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Touch and go politically
Review by Zoe Joblin 12th Nov 2017
Venus in Fur was written in 2010 by David Ives and is based on the 1870 novel Venus in Furs, written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the namesake of the sexual kink ‘Masochism’. The two-hander play within a play boasts tight dialogue and a spiralling narrative that doesn’t give much away. There have been numerous pop culture references to the book and the play was turned into a short film of the same name by Roman Polanski.
The play opens with Thomas Novachek (Andrew Foster), a struggling New York director in a cheap rehearsal room, bemoaning the inadequate intellect of all the young actresses he has auditioned who “can’t even pronounce degradation”. He is directing the adaptation of the novel Venus in Furs and Vanda Jordan (Jessica Robinson) comes to audition at the last minute. As Thomas reluctantly reads for her, it becomes clear that Vanda is using the exercise to play a long game with him to elicit his true intent for adapting this particular novel.
The chemistry between Robinson and Foster adds authenticity to the production. As struggling New York actress, as Domme, Submissive, Private Eye, Austrian Noblewoman and as Venus herself, Jessica Robinson’s performance is energetically massive and technically flawless. Foster also directed and designed the production and alongside the creative and technical team has made a formidable effort to create an engaging play.
The power balance is always up in the air as both characters play roles of dominant and submissive. Then, [spoiler alert?] just before Thomas’ 1870’s counterpart Severin begins to dominate Vanda’s counterpart Wanda, she directs Thomas to play the female role and she the male. [ends] This subversion is a huge relief and the point at which the plot twists enough that we realise the playwright is at least a little bit woke: adj. being aware of the social and political environments regarding all demographics and socio-economic standings. However, beyond the witty dialogue Venus in Fur feels passé in 2017.
Despite a slick production, the politics of Venus in Fur are touch and go because of casual comments about the idiocy of women and verbal violence which, in the time it takes to return a heartbeat to resting, are not explained or resolved (that is to say, not soon enough). The play is triggering not for the sexual content but because it’s exploration is non-consensual. The practise of deriving pleasure from pain or ‘contract’ is referred to now as BDSM. These aspects of human sexuality have likely been practised from time immemorial but today have strong international communities with a focus on boundaries, safety and consent.
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