REVIEW: Venus In Fur
By Nicole Baxter
Venus in Fur was an enrapturing, thrilling ninety minutes. Two actors, a table, a coffee machine, a fur, some leather. These seemingly ordinary objects brought to life. A mirror on either side of the performance space and the theatre-in-the-round layout signalled there was nowhere to hide, and that everything was on the table – figuratively at first, but more literally as the plot thickened.
We opened to Zach Selmes as Thomas Novachek, the archetypal tortured playwright – sorry, adapter. Right down to the mannerisms, I bought into the character immediately. We saw him struggle to find an actress that would do his adapted Vanda von Dunayev justice, originally from a novel written by the same guy that masochism was named after – it’s a big hint. The play-within-a-play trope was compelling and didn’t come off as cliché in the slightest, because Emma Burns’ direction included seamless transitions without losing the fire brought by the actors.
Enter Caitlin Williams as Vanda Jordan. I wasn’t sure whether to be in awe of her or terrified; I was probably a little of both. She matched Selmes’ physicality with a powerful voice, and a gleam in her eye that reminded me of Keira Knightley – if the 2006 version of Pride and Prejudice was a porno.
From there, the plot was entirely unexpected. There was a sense of thinking that it would progress, that the scene would change – when Vanda went to leave, when Thomas insisted that they only read through to the end of page three. But we kept being drawn back to the chemistry between the two characters as the central plot. It is, as Thomas would say, about passion. An hour and a half with no intermission, no change of scene, and everyone in the room couldn’t draw their eyes away. If anything, a break would have stunted the perfect pacing.
The costuming added an interesting element to the play. Vanda arrives in nothing but a black coat and lingerie, but spends time in a flowing white dress from the 1800s. The (frankly, sexual) chemistry between the characters means that tensions rise and fall, and the play-within-the-play gets constructed and de-constructed as she dresses and undresses. It’s a metaphor, as Vanda so poignantly suggests. The thin white fabric of the dress also means that we can see her black lingerie underneath, indicating that there’s always something just under the surface of these characters, itching to get out – and then it does.
Having only two characters meant that we got to know them intimately. Throughout, Vanda Jordan becomes Vanda von Dunayev, and Thomas Novachek becomes Greger Kushemski, and back again. Each actor played two (or more) characters in synchronicity, but made them distinct through excellent use of accents and a control of the smaller details. Actors changed characters and even genders, but at no point was I ever confused or lost – just eager to see more.
What’s more – this play was funny. Sure, it’s a bit about sex, but it’s mostly about human nature, and portrayed the message that humans are complex and surprising. Williams made Vanda endearing through her sheer female empowerment, which was immediately obvious, and some loud vocal warm-ups à la Sharpay – if Sharpay Evans wore a black leather dog collar and had woke ‘professed principles’. Some of the funniest moments of the play were those that were completely unexpected and almost out of character – Stacy! – and it kept us guessing about what was coming next.
What I ultimately loved about this play was the tiny details. The level of lighting used changed the entire atmosphere. Soft, almost silent sound effects played, like birds in the trees, that immerses you into the world of these two people. Picturesque and visually very stunning, without the razzle dazzle of elaborate props or sets. Thomas’ phone rang regularly, almost resetting the chemistry between the characters. These elements, and the sheer talent of the actors, allowed the eventual shocking climax of the play to be that much sweeter. One might even think that was the point.