American playwright David Ives’s award-winning play Venus in Fur first premiered off-Broadway in 2010 and a successful run launched it to Broadway a year later. The darkly comic play-within-a-play involves an adaptation of the 1870 novel Venus in Furs, by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name the word “masochism” originated. The lines between drama and reality blur as playwright-director Thomas and auditioning actress Vanda engage in a submission-domination power play that only one can win.
The piece was a smash in New York and has since been produced all over the world, recently in London starring Game of Thrones’ Natalie Dormer. It was also adapted into a 2013 film by Roman Polanski (which in itself is interesting given the director’s own record of alleged predatory behaviour). Now it’s Melbourne’s turn, where it appears in a post-Weinstein world in which the dialogue around sexual politics, female objectification and misuse of power has never been so uninhibited.
Venus in Fur is Lightning Jar Theatre’s second production following a widely applauded debut, Stupid Fking Bird, in February 2017. Director Kirsten von Bibra says taking on this production was a challenge given the current climate, but also an opportunity for audiences to view and reflect on an important conversation in all its complexities.
The play uses imagery from Venus of Urbino, a painting of a semi-naked blonde woman lying on fur, and explores many themes of Masoch’s novel as well as the author’s own documented personal fantasies, which carried over from fiction into abusive real-life scenarios.
“Masoch, when he was 10, was caught spying on a formidable countess and was whipped naked on fur,” Von Bibra says. “He was later married for 10 years and made his wife sign a contract to be financially dependent on him and [to be] a reluctant participant in his S&M proclivities. He’d say: ‘I’ve got writer’s block’ and the only way out was to satisfy his fantasies. She was coerced.”
In David Ives’s play, the protagonist is a director and playwright looking for a representative of his version of the female ideal.
“He’s gone through 30 women in the audition process and nobody’s right,” Von Bibra explains. “Then an unlikely candidate walks in late and piques his interest. The play unravels from there.
“There’s a lot of dramatic irony and dark humour in the play … exaggeration of ideals and clichés … It treads a fine line of who’s in control, and this is played out in every part of directing the show,” she adds. “Who should stand? How much space do you take up? Space is political; it’s interesting to reverse it.”
Venus in Fur is playing at fortyfivedownstairs, 45 Flinders Lane, Melbourne, at 7.30pm Tuesdays to Saturdays (6pm Sundays) until Saturday March 24. Tickets are from $30 at fortyfivedownstairs.com.