BDSM. Greek mythology. Gender role play. A touch of strobe lighting. What more could you want on a Wednesday night at the theatre with your mum?
When I went to see Venus in Fur at 107 Projects in Redfern, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was unfamiliar with the original work. I imagined it was going to be about something seductive, sensual or perhaps forbidden, that’s about as much as I could deduce from the promotional material. I was right about it being seductive, but it was much more than a cheeky onstage kiss. The play flirted with boundaries, delving into the complexities of sex, power and sadomasochism.
In hindsight, it probably wasn’t the best play to bring my mum along to. This is the woman who didn’t talk to me about sex until I was 17, but it’s the theatre after all, what else can you expect?
This performance was the retelling of a play originally created by US playwright David Ives, based around the 1870 novel Venus In Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. The entire play is set around an audition, with the audience spectating from afar. None of this breaking the fourth wall business (thank god).
The storyline is centred around a first-time director named Thomas (Zach Selmes) who is casting for his leading lady for the Venus In Fur performance (it’s one of those plays within a play). After auditioning a string of uninspiring actresses, Thomas is paid a visit by an intriguing character, Vanda (Caitlin Williams). She’s late and full of attitude, but after some impressive persuasion she convinces Thomas to let her audition for the show. Vanda is almost too perfect for the role of Wanda. She knows a lot the story of Venus in Fur, and a little too much about Thomas’ personal life.
She unpacks his controversial views on sadomasochism and can argue on his distorted perceptions. At first, Vanda appears to be a little no-good when she arrives to her audition, but by the end Thomas is utterly intrigued by her acting skills and her opposing views of the play.
A story of sexual exploration unravels before our eyes as we quietly spy on the exchanges between Thomas and Vanda. Williams’ portrayal of Vanda (and Vanda’s interpretation of Wanda) was wonderful. She was blunt, overly-confident and crass. I believed her for every moment of the play. And I’ll be surprised if Selmes isn’t going to be the next hot thing in Sydney’s theatre scene. His interpretation of Thomas (and Thomas’ interpretation of Severin) was beautiful. He had the right look (thin, blonde and angelic), the right attitude, and made sure that every exchange with Williams was realistic, adding volumes of depth to the story.
Selmes and Williams convincingly switched characters (and eras) throughout the performance, with Williams also portraying her character Wanda von Dunayev, and Selmes as Severin von Kushemski. At one point, in a bid to highlight gender roles and a reverse in power dynamics, the two actors swapped roles with each other (Williams playing Severin and Selmes now playing Wanda). It was a lot to take in and a little confusing at times, but the lack of adornment in the setting offered a great balance between the aggressive blocking and bold acting sequences throughout the production.
Staying true to the modern New York setting, director Emma Burns chose for the actors to use American accents. I sometimes find it quite cringeworthy when Aussie actors attempt accents, especially American, but they were beyond brilliant at nailing that New Yorker twang and then switching to classic 1950s transatlantic accent as Wanda and Severin.
The performance unpacked the ins and outs of sadomasochism and analysed the status of ‘domination’ and ‘slaves’. If that sounds a little hardcore for your liking, don’t be put off. It’s more like an all-in-one history, society and culture, and drama lesson than some kind of live sex show, with the audience learning of the power roles that exist within BDSM. For me, it was just as confronting as it was entertaining.
There were also a few funny moments, which came as a relief from the deep and powerful sexual themes and concepts. The daring and courageous independent theatre experience relied on little more than the actors on stage, with a minimal set design displaying just a table, chair, a mirror and coffee machine (I’m guessing it served the cast and crew well during the rehearsal stages).
Overall, it was a great night out. The cast and crew created something extraordinary for Sydney’s independent theatre goers and brought to life the controversial world of sadomasochism and BDSM.
Venus in Fur was supported by The University of Sydney Union's Bright Ideas Program and Max Black.
DIRECTOR: Emma Burns
PRODUCER: Sean Landis
DESIGNER: Maddy Picard
SOCIAL MEDIA: Andrea Mudbidri
LIGHTING DESIGNER:Hannah Crane
SOUND DESIGNER: Georgia Condon
ARTIST: Chloe Farrington
COSTUME ASSISTANT: Jake Parker
GRAPHIC DESIGNER: Michael Felczynski
MAKEUP ARTIST: Tess Williams
Claudia is a Sydney-based writer who is addicted to 'useful' BuzzFeed quizzes, a diehard Sex & the City fan. She's also well-versed in pretending to know a Cab Savs from a Pinot Noir. You can find her Instagramming as @claudia_siron and you can check out her portfolio here.