Theatre review: Sex, lies and play scripts in 'Venus in Fur'

It only takes a few four letter words, a bit too much female flesh and serious talk of S&M to put people outside their comfort zones.

Venus in Fur by David Ives
Auckland Theatre Company
Herald Theatre
Until September 18

Among the comments overheard on opening night of Venus in Fur were – “that took me outside my comfort zone ‘and “well, I won’t be bringing the children to this.” It only takes a few four-letter words, a bit too much female flesh and serious talk of S&M to put people outside their comfort zones.

Venus in Fur manages to provide just the right level of titillation to draw in the audience but not enough for them to be really offended. Anyway, enough people have been attracted by this titillating but inoffensive play to have made it one of the most successful contemporary plays of this century and the most produced play in America since its premiere in 2010.

The play, written by David Ives, is an adaptation of the book Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, in which he describes the obsessions of Severin von Kusiemski, a European nobleman who desires to be enslaved to a woman. Severin finds his ideal of voluptuous cruelty in the merciless Wanda von Dunajew.

The1870 novel gained notoriety and a degree of immortality for its author when the word "masochism" was derived from his name.

In the play, Vanda van Dunajew turns up for a read-through with Thomas, the author and director who initially regards her as brash, vulgar and unsophisticated. The play cleverly entwines Thomas' budding relationship with Vanda with the developing intrigue of Kushemski and Wanda's unusual sexual bond.

As they proceed through the read-through, Wanda expresses concerns and opinions about the play, her way of playing the part and also the dubious notions of the book.

Thomas also expresses his opinions on these same things, which leads to an increasing intimacy as the couple starts to become like the couple in the book. The balance of power is reversed and the actress establishes dominance over the director, which is similar to what occurs in the novel.

One of the clever aspects of the play is the way the dialogue of the book and of the play intermingles with the conversations between Thomas and Vanda, creating an unsettling confusion

While much of the play revolves around the nature of power in relationships, one of its great strengths is the way it deals with the nature of theatre – why and how writers create scripts, how and why directors interpret and envisage the playwright's work and how actors respond to the play and the director's approach.

This and the play within a play idea allows for debate between Thomas and Vanda on the nature of theatre and writing, accusing each other of not knowing what the play is about. She assumes he must be writing from personal experience and wants to know how the book/ play is relevant to the t21st century and even gets him to write some additional lines she thinks would be more relevant.

Morgana O’Reilly is a superb Vanda balancing her theatricality of delivery, her personal exasperation with the play's ideas and the notion that she is a Venus herself – the muse turns into the master. She also skilfully manages the deadpan way in which she feigns ignorance – “Who is Aphrodite” or proves she knows a lot more than she is letting on such as knowing where Thomas’ fiancée works and her surprising ability to know where the fuse box is and takes over the lighting designer's task herself.

As Thomas, Craig Hall provides a well-judged performance as something of a fall guy to O’Reilly’s series of punch lines. He also manages the confusion and comprehension as Thomas adjusts his ideas about the play and the way the play needs to be performed, which are challenged by Vanda, and he comes under her sensual as well as dramaturgical influence.

The play only has the two characters on stage but we are introduced to the costumes of other characters. – the white 19th-century dress of Wanda, the frock coat for the domineering Severin as well as his servant’s uniform as the dominated Severin.

Elizabeth Whiting’s design and the use of richly textured fabrics allows us to appreciate these other dimensions of the characters in a subtle way.

The soundscape (Paul McLaney), a combination of cinematic and faux 19th-century music works well and lighting (Sean Lynch) adds brilliantly to the changing ambience. The combination of bolts of lightning and thunder alerting us (in retrospect) to the arrival of a goddess was also a nice touch.

Tune into NBR Radio’s Sunday Business with Andrew Patterson on Sunday morning, for analysis and feature-length interviews.

Click the hamburger symbol top right of our homepage to access the Rich List 2016 and other sections.