Venus in Fur – Grace Barnes and broadness of perspective. (Theatre Review)

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Venus in Fur has been all the rage since it’s 2010 debut, strangely tapping into a BDSM trend that has hit the main stream with a flourish. The culmination of its success is the late 2014 film adaptation by Roman Polanski that remains close to the source material and is still fresh in the mind of those of us lucky enough to see it. This draws inevitable comparisons when seeing the Darlinghurst Theatres current adaptation, but at the same time it’s interesting to compare the Grace Barnes driven vehicle with the film.

In the previous case, in Venus in Fur as directed by Roman Polanski starring Emmanuel Seigner, it’s the differences to the Venus in Fur as directed by Grace Barnes starring Anna Houston that make for interesting observation. Physically the two actresses couldn’t be more contrasting. David Ives Vanda is a youthful early twenty-year old wrestling with her characters objectification from Thomas (Gareth Reeves) even as she is objectified repeatedly by Ives himself. Perhaps it’s a bit on the nose to do that, so Polanski gets around it by casting his forty-seven year old, but still round, flushing and beautiful wife in the role, giving Vanda a specific power that a young woman prancing around in lingerie doesn’t have. Grace Barnes tackles this problem by casting Houston who is a wiry, physically fit woman, complete with hardened abs and a ropy body that gives Vanda a certain physical power as she struts about the stage in her suspenders and heels, that never indicates the softness of an imposed masculine ideal. The complex nuances in the physical appearance of Vanda speak to the existent difficulties and their accompanying cerebral delights in bringing a strong interpretation of Venus in Fur to life.

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Compare this with the changes made in casting Gareth Reeves as Thomas. Polanski sticks to the Ives vision (was Ives being a tad self reverential in Venus in Fur?) of the aging writer involved in casting his own play. However Barnes, in casting Reeves, gives a much more interesting Thomas, one less worldly-wise, less sure of himself and less commanding. This rescues The Darlinghurst theatres adaptation from the immediately obvious tedium of the so-called ‘power struggle’ between the hot young woman and the lust filled middle-aged man and gives a much-needed gravitas to Thomas’ role. It’s Reeves performance here that enhances Venus in Fur, deepening its questions, tilting the narrative away from a battle of the sexes aesthetic toward something more akin to two human people battling over a political tragectory. While it means Ive’s play suffers a little in the suspense department, it makes Venus in Fur a more contemporary and far more interesting play to witness. For my money, this gives the Darlo theatres vehicle a distinct and potent edge over the Polanski film.

Venus in Fur is a nicely written piece of theatre, depicting the mysterious aspects of connection between men and women in the context of a light weight Dominant/submission relationship that is performed in rehearsals between a writer casting a role and the performance transformation of the performer in front of him – about whom he’s made too many assumptions early in the piece. It’s touted as a contemporary analysis of a feminist relationship between a man and a woman, but it plays it all a little too safe to have much to say on that topic, comes to no conclusions and offers no strong positions about which to discuss after. Many critics have argued that the strength in Ives’ writing is that he leaves us wondering about the nature of the protagonists, and historical narrative and their desires – but this ends up being a little too Oleanna-esque and too ephemeral to be provocative, typically relying too heavily on the questions of angles and viewpoint. Is sexism really a matter of perspective? Misogyny is not underrepresented, neither is it the primary male mindset, rather it is a crises of the imagination. Must we include the misogynistic males perspective every time we want to genuinely look at power dynamics in a relationship? Sexist men are boring, not misunderstood, and Grace Barnes’ Venus in Fur is at its most interesting when it gives Thomas some legs to stand on, rather than play him as a dull stereotype that – guess what? Misjudges women! Shocking!

This is all fine, because as a straight piece of narrative theatre it’s not only lovely to watch, and the sort of theatre that solicits nice performances, but it’s also easy on the budget, making it a play that can be performed readily and easily anywhere. Taken as a piece of thoughtful good fun, it’s a wonderful night at the theatre, contributing something fresh and interesting to Ives’ play. The performances are top-notch, imbued with the aforementioned twists on the script (this is a great example of how powerful casting can be as its own commentary on source material) with simple yet effective design by Mel Page and interesting well thought out sound work from Jessica James-Moody. It’s another great night of theatre from Darlinghurst Theatre company and one you will be sorry to miss.

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