Theatre review: Venus in Fur, Fridays Studio, WA

The play within a play narrative of this production addressed themes of intersecting power and eroticism.
Venus in Fur. Image is a woman in bondage gear and long dark hair standing in a purple it audition room.

Venus in Fur, written by David Ives, is an adaptation of the 1870 novel Venus in Furs (plural) by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The play tells the tale of Thomas Novachek , a director who has written an adaptation of Venus in Furs, and Vanda, whose intimate understanding of the source material renders her perfect for the lead female role.

In Company O’s production, Thomas (Andrew O’Connell) first appeared alone, monologuing into his phone about the idiocy of women after failing to find an actress to play the role of Vanda. His words revealed traces of internalised misogyny and set up thematic foundations. A thunderous storm cut off his call and an actress arrived in a cloud of expletives. She was here to audition for the part, but Thomas immediately dismissed the possibility. However, this real life Vanda (Codey Finlay) was not to be dissuaded, convincing Thomas to let her read alongside him. He reluctantly relented, having already judged her unworthy of the role.

Vanda removed her beige trench coat to reveal leather lingerie and a dog collar. Her swagful of vintage clothing transformed both actress and adaptor into their respective characters as the boundaries between truth and fiction started to blur. Vaguely vampiric accents allowed the actors to reveal their full selves, given the freedom of assumed disguise. These accents communicated context, enabling the actors to fluidly shift between dual identities without disorienting the audience.

Witty but natural banter ensued. Vanda cleverly called out Thomas’ lack of insight into his own play, displaying a better understanding of the source material than the adaptor himself. Vanda was always one step ahead, as she pointed out problematic aspects of the work, in addition to challenging Thomas’ own implicit assumptions and subsequent misinterpretations. Vanda rendered Thomas vulnerable through her biting analysis, while he dismissed her astute observations as being “trite”. The more Thomas’ ego was bruised, the more he lashed out with increasingly blatant misogyny in unsuccessful attempts at veiling his own frustrated insecurities.

These contrasting characters were each other’s perfect foils, with layers of metanarrative bending beneath a shifting balance of power. ‘Why should I deny myself anything?’ asked the one who refused to abstain from pleasure, while the other remained intent on vanishing their own essence through submissive acts of service. But which is which? The assumed powerlessness inherent to patriarchal conceptions of gender was embedded in the narrative, which commented on the appearance of giving away one’s power while paradoxically holding it all. 

This dramatic exploration of power and vulnerability dealt in the art of absorbing and creating, with so much double entendre! The well-timed swoosh of an invisible birch can either reveal or conceal the truth, leaving reality ambiguous, or (as Vanda might say) ambivalent. The inherent irony (of a director directing someone to direct) was augmented by the knowledge that O’Connell, who played the fictional director, was also the real-life director of this play. 

Codey Finlay and Andrew O’Connell were beyond exceptional in their respective portrayals of Vanda and Thomas. They expertly lulled their audience into a state of suspended disbelief, cleverly heightened by the forced intimacy of a quirky warehouse setting. 

Fridays Studio provided a suitable aesthetic, with exposed brick and plaster, a red lounge and a matching bench becoming a convincingly realistic set. Atmospheric lighting cast warm splashes and cold shadows across the walls and roof. The sound design, particularly the intermittent storm audio, was suitably impactful without dominating the confines of the space. 

Walking a surprisingly thin line between “pornish S&M” and “classic literature”, Venus in Fur was a magnificent feast of subversive humour that explored the meaning of masochism. Amusing, erotic and deceptively intelligent, this perfectly executed production dealt playfully with duality and power dynamics, without ever losing the substance that lent this addictive narrative its weight. 

Venus in Fur
Fridays Studio, WA

Written by David Ives
Director: Andrew O’Connell
Assistant Director and Musical Director: Krispin Maesalu
Stage Manager: Sierra Phillips
Music, lights, and sound operator: Krispin Maesalu
Lights, sound, design, and transport: Justin Neil Mosel-Crossley
Photographer and video promo: Peter Renzullo
Video promo: Nigel Goodwin
Movement coach and dramaturgy: Teresa Izzard and Samuel Addison
Costume: Nicole Miller

Painting: Alex Ferrari
Cast: Andrew O’Connell, Codey Finlay

Venus in Fur was performed 16-19 November 2023. 

Nanci Nott is a nerdy creative with particular passions for philosophy and the arts. She has completed a BA in Philosophy, and postgraduate studies in digital and social media. Nanci is currently undertaking an MA in Creative Writing, and is working on a variety of projects ranging from novels to video games. Nanci loves reviewing books, exhibitions, and performances for ArtsHub, and is creative director at Defy Reality Entertainment.