Review: Venus in Fur (The X Collective)

Content warning: partial nudity, sexual references, loud noises, strobing light effects, prop weapons.

The X Collective presents an electric and engrossing production of David Ives’ Venus in Fur, directed by Wayne McPhee and starring AJ and Nick Sinclair. Power, fantasy, and desire collide in this exploration of interpersonal dynamics, especially as they relate to love, sex, and gender.

Playwright Thomas Novachek (Nick Sinclair) is packing up after a long and unsuccessful day of auditioning actresses for the lead in his latest play, Venus in Fur. He is preparing to leave when Vanda Jordan (AJ) bursts in from the storm outside, determined to audition. Nicholas finally relents in the face of her enthusiasm, despite believing she is wrong for the role. However, as they read through the scenes, Vanda begins to reveal startling insights and questions the motives and integrity of both the characters and the playwright, unwinding the writing and Novachek’s psyche as she does so. Working through the scenes and unpicking the play together, the lines of fantasy and reality begin to bend and blur and the balance of power shifts, paralleling the events unfolding in the play-within-the-play.

Venus in Fur creates a thrilling tug-of-war between dominance and submission, and The X Collective consulted with Tyler Matthews on the BDSM elements of the show. The play’s intensity is balanced by moments of humour, and there is also some meta commentary about theatre and the play itself.

The play-within-the-play is an adaptation of Austrian writer and nobleman Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella Venus in Furs, a work that inspired the term “masochism” being derived from the author’s name. David Ives’ Venus in Fur premiered in 2010, opened on Broadway in 2011, and had its Australian premiere in Brisbane, in a 2013 Queensland Theatre Company production.

A two-person play like this can only be as good as the chemistry between its actors, and Sinclair and AJ worked exceptionally well together. The trust between the two actors was evident, and their chemistry was electric and sustained. Venus in Fur is set in modern day New York, and both actors switched easily between accents. AJ, in particular, shifted effortlessly between the actress Vanda Jordan, bubbling with energy, and the colder, more controlled, character of Vanda von Dunayev.

Set design by Brigitte Bennet made good use of the Latvian Community Hall’s deep stage and created the key spaces of the narrative. Changes in props and costume contributed to the blurring between reality and fantasy, and lighting design by Charlie Graham distinguished between the audition and the scenes being played out within it. Sound and lighting were also used to conjure the storm mentioned in the script, although the crashing thunder occasionally overpowered the actors’ voices early in the piece.

The actress Vanda brings a series of costumes to her audition and these, along with the lighting changes, help to differentiate the imagined action of the play reading and the reality of the audition room. Up to a certain point in the reading, Novachek and Vanda were gesturing and miming the action of the play without props, but there was a thrilling moment where it all became real.

As a two-hander dealing in complex subject matter, Venus in Fur is the kind of work that could have gone wrong at any moment, but The X Collective’s production balanced perfectly on the edge and the actors were fully committed in every moment, resulting in a thrilling and thought-provoking performance.

Venus In Fur will be performed at the Latvian Community Hall, Woolloongabba, from 20 April – 6 May 2023.

Click here for ticketing and further information

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