David Ives’ 2010 play drops the audience into an audition room. Writer-director Thomas Novachek struggles to find the leading lady for his one-dimensional, misogynistic adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs - until the mysterious Vanda Jordan literally appears before him like an unholy apparition clad in lingerie.
A one-act play, Venus in Fur is a difficult script to pull off. Unlikeable characters, a play-within-a-play format not always sharp writing and a predictable, repetitive plot is a tough call for any company, including this independent group of young theatremakers. In this production, directed by Emma Burns and starring Zach Selmes and Caitlin Williams, the traps laid by Ives at times tripped up the performance at Redfern’s 107. Overall, Venus in Fur lagged a little and fell into a formulaic rhythm as we alternated between the play and the play-within-the play.
With no set changes or breaks in the script, delivery and direction had to be razor sharp to keep focus on what was unfolding in front of us. While Williams and Selmes adeptly maintained their energy during what is, essentially, a relentless duologue, there was little variation and few moments of contrast. However, the final ten minutes certainly picked up the pace, driven forward by Williams into a frenzied finale.
The unlikeability of the characters in Venus in Fur makes this a difficult script to deliver. Vanda is tricky to pin down - it’s hard to decide whether the playwright wanted to depict her as a struggling actor doing what she can to make it in the world of theatre; or a coy, manipulative woman brazenly toying with a weak-willed man. Vanda could be in charge of or a victim to her own sexuality. Williams portrays her as a sometimes ditsy, sometimes ominous presence, who is hard to define at her core.
Thomas is every slimy man you've ever met, embodied well by the lanky, long-haired Selmes, as he constantly nitpicks every word from Vanda's mouth. He alternates between charming her with praise for her acting skills and speaking down to her, over-explaining every element of his script with the condescending confidence unique to someone blessed with the straight-white-male trifecta.
It's these intense, prickly personalities that make it difficult to empathise with any of what’s happening on stage, as neither side is particularly appealing to root for. The creepy facades worn by the characters makes it difficult to find any heat in the promised moments of supposed sexual tension between the pair, whose romantic or sexual chemistry is not entirely believable. This is further affected as brief sparks of sexuality are marred as one remembers Thomas’ constant leering, wandering eyes, and abusive, misogynistic comments towards his auditionee. Regardless of chemistry, the pair must be praised for their evident comfort within the text, and also for their immaculate accents - frequently switching from American to “transatlantic” without fault.
The theatre at 107 was an intimate space well-suited to the production, with the stage set up in a traverse style that worked well with Vanda and Thomas’ constant (literal and figurative) circling of each other. The set, designed by Maddy Picard, is sparse, but reminiscent of a somewhat dingy audition room: there's a table, some chairs, a coffee machine and a few mirrors, whose purpose is mainly aesthetic and which are perhaps not entirely necessary.
Director Burns and Producer Sean Landis have done well to bring together a talented team: sound design by Georgia Condon subtly signposted the dissolves into the play-within-the-play via gentle birdsong; and snapped back into the blurred reality of the play with claps of thunder and the showering of rain. Sound was complimented by Hannah Crane’s lighting design, which also served to delineate between Venus in Fur and Venus in Furs, and particularly shone through in a dazzling final tableau. The basic black-and-white costumes were simple, and perhaps could have used more detail or complexity.
When it comes down to it, I can’t decide on whether this play is feminist, or just another man explaining feminism to me. It’s not quite as sexy as it wants to be, yet Williams and Selmes perform their dual roles with meticulous care. Despite directorial issues with pacing of the play as a whole, the strength of Venus in Fur lies in its actors, who lack the right kind of chemistry but who are at their best in the closing scene.
Venus in Fur is on at 107 until April 13, and tickets are available at https://107.org.au/event/venus-in-fur/.