Alison Croggon reviews Venus in Fur, from the new indie company Lightning Jar
I don’t believe in progress; or at least, I don’t believe in “Progress” as the inevitable outcome of the march of History, a constant evolution of enlightenment towards the luminous Present. Perhaps this is because anyone familiar with the history of art knows that thinking in these terms is nonsense. Much of the energy of European Modernism, for instance, came from ancient ideas about representation from supposedly “primitive” societies.
The same goes for ideas. The emancipation of women was a hot topic in the 19th century. August Strindberg, who basically invented intimate theatre as we know it, spent a great deal of vitriol attacking feminist women in ways that are very familiar to anyone acquainted with the online rhetoric of Gamergate. Friedrich Nietzsche was deeply exercised by the idea of Woman: he even perceived that the idea of the Feminine, which he so vigorously despised, was created by men. As with many of the leading intellectual men of his time –Rainer Maria Rilke, Sigmund Freud, Frank Wedekind – he was obsessed by the Russian-born psychoanalyst and writer Lou Andreas-Salomé. Wedekind in fact based his famous character Lulu on her.
Andreas-Salomé has, in the way of history, become a footnote to the lives of her male colleagues, although she was a formidable intellect in her own right. She wrote more than a dozen novels, as well as the first important study of Nietzsche’s thought, a study of Ibsen’s female characters and a book about female sexuality, Die Erotik, which was, among other things, a major influence on Freud’s psychoanalysis. Die Erotik remains a fascinating read a century later: it’s also, like Freud’s work, profoundly shaped by the gender and class relations of its time. Andreas-Salomé championed the notion that the relations between men and women were shaped primarily by biological and psychological difference. For the men who admired her, she was a “goddess”: a dominatrix, a femme fatale, an exceptional woman who rose above the rest of her sex.
Leopold Sacher-Masoch’s Wanda von Dunajew in his 1870 novel Venus in Furs is a very similar archetype: a figure of the goddess-feminine who is worthy of male adoration and abasement. The catch in the mistress-slave narrative is, of course, that the man shapes the woman into the figure of his desire. Wanda’s own desires are ambiguous or obscure: she warns the nobleman dilettante, Severin von Kushemski, against unleashing her cruelty, and protests his failure to perceive her as a person. The notion of sexual liberation she supposedly embodies is suffocating: she is completely trapped in the binaries of sexual domination set up both by Kushemski and the society in which she lives.
Sacher-Masoch’s novel was a scandal at the time, and his name passed into the English language with the word “masochism”. Playwright David Ives’s ingenious adaptation, Venus in Fur, isn’t really about BDSM, despite the frisson of kink. It’s about men and women. It’s a smart, well written play that turns on its heel swiftly and interestingly to set up several layers of ambiguity, and it’s given a detailed and powerful production by Kirsten von Bibra which is well worth your time. New indie company Lightning Jar, for whom this is only their second show, is clearly a name to look out for.
The conceit is that a playwright/director Thomas, has spent the day auditioning actors for his adaptation of Venus in Furs. It opens with a diatribe against the mindlessness of the contemporary young woman that makes your heart sink, that is immediately confirmed, and then challenged, by the entrance of Wanda (Tilly Legge), running two hours late for her audition after a nightmare commute through a storm, during which she was felt up by a creep.
She is clearly completely unsuitable for the role, but she cajoles Thomas into a short reading. It turns out that her transformation as an actor is complete: she is, as she claims, perfect as the noblewoman dominitrix Wanda. Thomas is intrigued, and the two are increasingly drawn into Sacher-Masoch’s reality, permitting Ives to set several layers of ambiguity running through both the play and the play-within-a-play. (I think I counted three in each). Who is Wanda, really? Why is she there? How does she know the entire text by heart?
With its constant shifts of focus, character and even accents, Venus in Fur is a gift to actors. And these actors drive the production: they both give sterling, impressively disciplined performances that keep your attention throughout the show. Their portrayals of Thomas and Wanda have the kind of detailing and clarity that comes from careful and intelligent readings of the text.
The space at Fortyfive Downstairs is perfect for the workshop set of the play, and Dann Barber’s simple design enhances its reality. Megz Evans’ lighting is sometimes confusing: at first it’s controlled by Wanda, but later the states change without her volition, and the transition is jarring rather than, as I think is intended, a heightening of double realities. Linton Wilkinson’s sound design has a similar problem: somehow the naturalistic set-up (thunder and so on) doesn’t quite translate into Claire Healy’s expressive music. I’m not sure why. But the production successfully frames the performances without being obtrusive.
My only real quibble is with the play itself. It’s an intelligent and literate contemporary take on Venus in Furs but, despite a few gestures towards contemporary feminism, it remains blinkeredly male. It does show how contemporary misogyny is deeply related to the class-bound 19th century version, in which women are molded into a sadistic/masochistic model of Woman – either, like the majority of their sisters, they are naturally inferior to men, or they are the terrifying but fascinating “masculine” exception. But it doesn’t move beyond this.
The woman still remains a cipher, a symbol to be scried, suffered and understood by the masculine gaze. There is no sense of other possibilities outside the stifling matrix of “the war of the sexes”. Somehow we’re all still stuck in Europe, circa 1870.
Venus in Fur, by David Ives, directed by Kirsten von Bibra. Costume and set by Dann Barber, lighting by Megz Evans, sound design by Linton Wilkinson, composer Claire Healy. Performed by Darcy Kent and Tilly Legge. Lightning Jar at Fortyfive Downstairs, until March 24. Bookings. http://www.fortyfivedownstairs.com/wp2016/event/venus-fur-david-ives/2018-03-20/
Wheelchair access available with 24 hours notice. Lightning and thunder sound effects.