Friday, 16 January 2015

Venus in Fur - Black Swan State Theatre Company (15 January 2015)

Power. Control. Domination. Subjugation. Mistress. Slave. Goddess. Mortal. Director. Actress. Ambivalent. Ambiguous. Explicable. Extricable. A potent stew of taboos and desires mixed with a healthy serving of word play, sly humour, and top notch performances.

Who really is in control – the one who dominates or the one who craves domination thus seeking to set the terms of the relationship? How easily can those lines be blurred? In real life, in fiction, in the creative process? How easily can they be reversed?

Venus in Fur is a wonderfully layered ‘play within a play’ that seeks to explore these issues under the tantalising banner of sex and masochism. But that’s only the pretext for 90 minutes of sparring between two actors who inhabit multiple roles and changing perspective as the balance of power shifts and mutates in riveting fashion.

A playwright/director, Thomas (Adam Booth), is at the end of a fruitless day auditioning actresses for his latest play based on an 1870s masochistic novel. In storms an actress, Vanda (Felicity McKay), hours late, who coincidentally has the same first name as the character in the adaptation. Seemingly coarse and unsuitable she convinces Thomas to allow her to audition with a level of preparation and insight that intrigues and impresses him. As they read scenes together his play comes to life in ways Thomas never bargained for. Indeed, Vanda proves adept at taking control of not only the creative process but Thomas’ own latent desires.

Booth is good as Thomas – from frustrated director to eager supplicant, he is challenged by Vanda the actress and Vanda the character of his adaptation with even the goddess Aphrodite making an appearance. There is an earnestness and belief in Booth’s portrayal that acts as the bedrock for the assault to come - on Thomas’ motives for adapting the play, to his interpretation of its meaning and, ultimately, who and what he really is. Highlights come in an early monologue from the play reading where the fascination with fur (and pain through submission) is revealed – a Countess Aunt who beat the character with a birch switch while he was prone on her fur coat. 

Booth also has a well-judged outburst where he turns verbally nasty after Vanda pushes him too far and he tries to reassert control as snarling director over the ‘stupid actress’. Then there is a sense of eagerness and desperation as the character plummets further down the rabbit hole and begs to subjugate his very identity to be nothing more than property. The scene where Thomas is commanded to change Vanda’s footwear to knee-high boots is languid sensuality and desire writ large.

Felicity McKay is simply outstanding as Vanda. Her accent work is excellent and she slides in and out of various characters with astonishing ease, each one of them utterly distinctive so there is no prospect of confusion. She runs the gamut from playful, sexy, sensuous, commanding, dismissive, brash and refined but always with an underlying air of intrigue about who this person really is. There are explanations given that seem plausible enough but still left me in doubt as to their veracity. It’s the far showier part but handled superbly in McKay’s professional debut. Above all, the sense of playfulness here is a joy to watch as is a compelling stage presence even when not featured in any given scene. A striking figure, especially in an array of memorable costumes, McKay is eminently watchable because she is always in the moment.

The set is quite simple with a divan the centrepiece. A storm rages “outside” (which pales in comparison to the tempest on stage) and the lighting handled this effectively. I wasn’t a fan of the incidental music that was intermittent and barely audible which made it more a distraction than an asset. Part of the ‘power struggle’ is who controls the blocking in the play within the play and there is a nice sense of movement throughout as a result. 

The writing is smart and it is genuinely funny though the humour is sometimes a little off-kilter given the context but I loved it for being as brash and unapologetic as its leading lady. There are also lots of theatre in-jokes (where is stage left again?) that amusingly bolster the creative battleground for supremacy between director and actress. The last stanza took an interesting turn as events fold in on themselves and roles are reversed but on first viewing I found that a little hard to follow. It certainly sponsors further thought and debate and this is a play that will linger with you long after the final whip crack.

Venus in Fur is a cleverly written play that allows two talented actors to inhabit multiple personas in a provocative, insightful and funny exploration of a subject matter many consider taboo. It is a great start to the theatre season and the upcoming Fringe Festival of which it’s a part.

Written by David Ives, Directed by Lawrie Cullen-Tait and starring Adam Booth and Felicity McKay, the play is at the Studio Underground in the State Theatre Centre and opens Saturday 17th January and runs until Sunday the 8th February.

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