It turned Nina Arianda into an overnight success, her performance earning her the 2012 Tony Award for Best Actress. In 2013 it became the most produced play that year with 22 productions. And its origin is found in a 19th century German S&M novella. At least that’s how Vanda Jordan, a brazen and uncouth, yet inarguably fascinating, actress refers to the work that inspired the play-within-the-play to its adapter, Thomas Novachek. Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch could never have expected Venus in Furs (plural), which exists as its own story-within-a-story, to result in an eponymous sexual condition, no more than he could that an American playwright by the name of David Ives would take inspiration from it and its narrative-framing to write one of the most successful international two-hander plays 140 years later.
This mirroring of works within works may read as somewhat convoluted, but it is the fundamental strength in Ives’ Tony Award-winning and implosively layered script, Venus in Fur (singular). At times the reflective dialogue and imagery between them is blatant and brash, evoking vocal approval from the audience, at others it’s as subtle and affecting as the caress of a lover’s finger against your skin, eliciting a genuinely sexual tension that the 100-seat Herald Theatre audience share in the collective dark of spectatorship. It’s the kind of script every actress, actor, and director desire, but only few could truly pull off. How easily the intricacies that permeate the density of Sacher-Masoch and Ives’ social commentaries and gender dynamics could be lost.
Fortunately, Auckland Theatre Company has given free rein to three of our best theatrical exports. Director Shane Bosher and his cast, Morgana O’Reilly and Craig Hall, never miss a beat. Every word is chewed within in an inch of its life, and lines that could otherwise seem trivial are loaded to inform the audience as to the levels each character plays and the pseudocouple power dynamic that fluctuates between them. O’Reilly is a mesmerising actress. From the moment she bursts onstage it’s nearly impossible to take your eyes off her. Though the prescribed Polish accent is absent [Update: See clarification in comments below], O’Reilly nevertheless creates a dramatic shift in persona from Vanda to Wanda von Dunayev, by expertly balancing the refinedness and edge of the latter, and her Venus is a sinfully cheeky delight.
As adapter and soon-to-be first-time director, Thomas, Craig Hall holds his own against the whirlwind actress, although at times he holds back beyond the necessary restraint of the character, preventing him from losing himself in the emotional depth, especially that which is seeded in his masochism monologue, and the required anger in his passionate dismissal of Vanda’s understanding of his work. Fortunately, Elizabeth Whiting’s costume design allows him to ease into his role as Severin von Kushemski, and, following his own flawless turn as Wanda, the show reaches its necessary climax.
Whiting’s detail extends to Vanda’s attire, and Bosher makes no apologies in utilising it in one of the play’s most powerful images to the extent you could hear a pin drop. It is a truly erotic moment, but Bosher is never gaudy with the content of the play or his exploration of it, and there is no superfluous movement on Rachel Walker’s authentic set, which hangs like a window framed by the Herald’s black walls for our voyeuristic pleasure.
Sean Lynch’s lighting design echoes the beats in the script, drawing us into the fantasy world of Novachek’s play and then snapping us back into stark reality like lovers caught in the act. Paul McLaney’s sound design is a particular highlight, verging on inconspicuous, and just as you realise it’s there, it’s gone – like the stolen moments between Vanda and Thomas.
There are many misconceptions about masochism, from its extraneous and erroneous links with sadism to the degree of its mental stimulation over its sexual nature. Fortunately, Auckland Theatre Company’s production of Venus in Fur, which marks the play’s New Zealand premiere, has delved deep into the varying levels of intellectual, sexual, and theatrical stimulation in Ives’ text, and, without having seen them, I dare say it would hold its own on the international stage against other productions.
Venus in Fur is presented by Auckland Theatre Company and plays at Aotea Centre’s Herald Theatre until September 18. For details see ATC.