Review: Venus in Fur (Court Theatre)
Updated: Jun 3, 2022
Perhaps, as "Fifty Shades Freed" rears its ugly head, and the phenomenal craze for BDSM literature, film and theatre seems to be gasping its final breaths (for this decade anyway), now was not the time for this adaptation of "Venus in Fur". The notorious David Ives play introduces us to Thomas Novachek (Daniel Watterson), a director struggling to cast the lead actress in his adaptation of Leopard von Sache-Masoch's controversial 19th century novel of love and domination "Venus in Fur". Enter Vanda Jordan (Jessie Lawrence); late, scatty, and perfect for the part in every way. Thus ensures an audition that blurs the lines between performance and reality, surrealism and naturalism. Since it's 2010 debut, it has gained a reputation, and seems to exist outside of frivolous trends.
It's fair to say that putting on this play is incredibly ambitious. In order for it to work at all, the atmosphere needs to be intense, and director Lara Macgregor handles this with great delicacy. Even upon entering the theatre, the soundtrack of gentle rainfall and infrequent, almost bored bass guitar mixed and the low lighting on Nigel Kerr's shabby chic, hipster set of exposed lightbulbs, old trunks, and a faded chaise lounge creates a sense of isolation and intimacy that is sustained throughout the performance. There is great attention to detail in how Vanda and Thomas interact with each other, as tussle of power and control between them interspersed with well executed moments of comedy. Occasionally looking at each other without the other knowing adds just enough sexual tension to be believable without drifting into parody. However, the ending of the play felt somewhat abrupt, feeling as though the production had run out of ways to be sexy and dangerous having used up all their resources in the previous 90 minutes.
Watterson's performance as a frustrated director having found a diamond in the rough is believable, and you cannot help but empathise with his state of wonder as Vanda takes up her role. While he convincingly loses control over the his audition of Vanda, towards the end his complete subjugation by her is less enthralling, and the transition from realism to surrealism in the final moments is not performed as smoothly by Watterson as one might have hoped. The monologues also, sadly, came off too scripted. They are highly detailed and articulate, for example one about the apparent need for direct and relevant social commentary in art, that is reeled off far too fast, not allowing enough time for him to seem like he is taking time to think of what he is saying, nor for the audience to absorb it.
However, the crux of the performance rests upon Lawrence as Vanda. As the sensuous and cruel character of Novachek's play (whose name is also Vanda) she is commanding and manipulative, giving a performance within a performance so strong that you can quite believe the lengths that Thomas goes to in order to keep her in character. When she first enters the stage though, she is so exuberant and hyper that I was taken aback, expecting to be met with an instantly enticing and entrapping mistress. After a while it make sense, as this persona was only a creation as part of her manipulation, however it still felt far over the top. When the part of the performance that is meant to be seen as real is unconvincing, the question of what is acting and what is reality becomes lost. By performance standards in general, it was strong, but it wasn't perfect and it wasn't enough for the show to reach its ambitions.
This play seems almost to be a challenge. Not something that can be re-imagined or produced merely adiquately, but one that needs to be done to perfection or it does not work. At least, the stakes for which this production has set itself dictate as much. It comes very close but doesn't quite achieve it. Even so, it is worth seeing. There is a great deal to admire creatively, even if the performances do not sustain all the way through. Four stars.
P.S. I made a 12 hour round trip to see this show, and it was worth it. That should tell you enough.