The work of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch has been kept alive by its salacious reputation and its numerous retellings.
The author, whose name is the source of the word masochism, has been called a pornographer and compared to the Marquis de Sade. But the play Venus in Fur, originally written by David Ives and currently being performed in Redfern, tempts out some of the social philosophy and personal experience that makes von Sacher-Masoch far more intriguing than his counterparts.
Thomas Novachek, the protagonist of the play, is attempting to stage a performance of the von Sacher-Masoch classic Venus in Furs, in which the fanatic Severin demands to be made a slave of his beloved Wanda. Tasked with finding a suitable ‘Wanda’ for his production, he eventually encounters a perfect candidate: the Delphic, bewildering Vanda Jordan. What ensues is only nominally an audition. The pair explore themes of domination, sexuality, and the combative dualism of ‘men and women’, all whilst bouncing between 1870 and present-day.
The audience, for the most part, attempts to follow the shifting power dynamics and social commentary. The two actors, Caitlin Williams as Vanda and Zach Selmes as Thomas, guide us admirably; they have a palpable and intense commitment to the nuance of the script, just as their characters immerse themselves in von Sacher-Masoch’s original material. When the earnest emotion breaks to comic relief, they deliver it with equal gusto.
There was some laughter from the audience over the performance space itself: a traverse-style arrangement with the audience divided into two groups facing each other, the stage in the middle, artfully decorated, with a prominent concrete column in the centre. It was ambitious, and no doubt required meticulous blocking by director Emma Burns, but it added to the overall mise-en-scène and was well-suited to the context of the play.
For all its strengths, there were certainly shortcomings. A short series of faults come to mind immediately: hackneyed lightning flickers and thunderclaps to punctuate tension-driven moments, a melodramatic ending that — whilst confronting — appears to have skipped the final fifteen pages of the novella that it latches itself to, and Thomas’ insistently American pronunciation of ‘Sacher-Masoch’.
All things considered, the play is a bold independent theatre experience, supported by the USU’s Bright Ideas program as well as adult emporium Max Black. It has the psychological and literary nuance of its inspiration, with robust actors to deliver it. The peripeteia might be enough to induce headaches, but the play is celebrated for good reason. Its success, both on and away from Broadway, is sourced from its depth and complexity. With such a short run, opportunities to catch a show are few, but any effort made to snap up tickets will be greatly rewarded.
Venus in Fur is running at 107 Redfern Street, Redfern until Saturday 13 April. Tickets can be found here. The booking fee supports the Women’s & Girls Emergency Centre, an inner-city crisis support service.