Arts / Playing out the erotics of power

Joanna Richards and Craig Alexander in “Venus in Fur”… “It’s a very sexy play and you don’t feel as if you’re in a tragedy – you laugh,” says Richards.

BEHIND Caroline Stacey’s coming production of the play “Venus in Fur” is a novella – a very famous novella by Austrian author Chevalier Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whom the word “masochism” derives.

It’s the classical masochism text and actors Joanna Richards and Craig Alexander have been delving into it with some interest, especially in its depiction of sexual politics.

While the 1870 novella tells of a man who is so infatuated with a woman, Wanda, that he asks her to make him her slave, the hugely popular 2010 play by David Ives, “Venus in Fur” (not Furs) is set in contemporary New York City.

It’s on three levels; the worlds of Sacher-Masoch, his novella and Ives’ play. Thomas is the writer-director of a new play, itself an adaptation of the novella. It’s audition time and in comes a brash new actress called Vanda for her audition for the part of Wanda, with Thomas reading the part of the man in the novella. But who’s in control? As the balance of power is reversed, real-life becomes very similar to fiction.

“Ninety-five minutes of the erotics of power,” The Street’s promotion proclaims, but if you believe Richards and Alexander, there’s scarcely any touching at all. Just like in the old movies where innuendo was everything.

Many of the incidents in the novel are alluded to in the play. “He” travels third class but “she”, wrapped in furs, travels first class, reflecting Sacher-Masoch’s real-life contract with his mistress to have her debase him.

Sounds revolting in this post Harvey Weinstein era? Well, maybe, Richards says, but it’s a question which Ives’ play addresses as her character asks, perhaps like the mistress, “you forced me into this role, so where does the power sit?”

“The dominating character is not altogether what it appears, and to make things more complicated in this play we have characters playing characters,” Richards says.

“If they feel powerless they’ll slip into the text of the play they’re supposed to be acting.”

The audience will have to be alert to every nuance in Ives’ rippling text, but if it sounds familiar, that’s because the French Film Festival brought Roman Polanski’s version to town a few years ago.

“It’s really topical asking questions about gender relations and sex in… the text is very clever explicit and yet suggestive, it’s no one thing, it’s full of surprises,” Richards says.

One thing that fascinates them is playwright Ives’ knowledge of literature, particularly Euripides’ “The Bacchae”, where the god Dionysius wreaks punishment on the impious King Pentheus.

Richards suspects herself her character is in part the goddess Aphrodite, but thinks the audience might wonder if she is Aphrodite or just a psychotic actress.

Alexander’s character is tied up and plays the female role. That’s exactly what happens to Pentheus in “The Bacchae”.

They agree that the play is full of sexual provocation, but note that there is no actual sexual assault. Rather, an “interesting chemistry” develops along with the role-playing and that’s what a lot of people will be enjoying, they say.

However, Richards does take issue with the way women are painted and says: “Women don’t get to author their own stories”. Thomas refuses to take responsibility, saying:“I didn’t write it, I’m directing it”.

But such issues aside, Richards says: “It’s a very sexy play and you don’t feel as if you’re in a tragedy – you laugh.”

“At one level it’s pure entertainment,” Alexander argues, “David Ives’ love of language is incredible, it’s so funny.”

“Venus in Fur”, The Street Theatre, August 22-September 2, adult content. Recommended for ages 16+. Bookings to thestreet.org.au or 6247 1223.

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