The bedroom is not for thinking about politics, if sexual pleasures are to be had. This statement reveals the wealth of meanings that are embedded into our desires and the way we satisfy them. David Ives’ Venus In Fur is a brilliant exploration into the manifestations of our sexualities, and an examination of impulses that might run contrary to our intentions and the kinds of people we wish ourselves to be. The quality of autonomous irrepressibility of our sexual appetites often betray the public personae we convey to the world. Ives’ writing is supremely complex, but truthfully so. It is highly intellectual but never pretentious or overly academic. It is a rare articulation of the way our problematic sexual selves resist suppression and tempering, and it looks at the implications of those deeper meanings that our sex seem to express. Through a context of sado-masochism, the play investigates the chasm between private and social, how we are able, or unable, to understand our true selves, and the impact that sex can have on the rest of one’s life. Also, Venus In Fur is some of the wittiest and most outrageously entertaining theatre one can ever wish to experience.
Direction by Grace Barnes is completely masterful, with a firm grasp on all the script’s themes that constantly and unpredictably fluctuate, thus representing the inconvenient and devious ways human nature can manifest. Barnes’ work pays attention to the most minute of nuances, and turns them into poignant, sometimes formidable statements, but she also creates flamboyant sequences of theatricality that are nothing short of edge-of-your-seat stuff. There are loud political messages being said here, and there is a delicious assertiveness that accompanies them, even (or maybe, especially) if they do come into conflict with one another. When art wants to get at the truth of something, the results are often antagonistic, and in this case, the incessant exposure of our humanly contradictions is exciting and at times, rapturously so. It is an acknowledgement of all our strengths and weaknesses, and a celebration of our determined exertion to become better.
Anna Houston is magnificent as Vanda, an enigmatic character written so vast, she seems destined to embody all of womanhood. It is an impossible idea, but Houston’s work is boundlessly passionate and versatile, and she exceeds all requirements of the hugely demanding text. The actor is dynamic at every moment, always keeping us entertained with a bold comic sensibility, and challenging our mental capacities with a range of subtexts so acerbic and provocative, that we cannot help but be entranced. The wildness of her approach is informed by a powerful impetus that can be emotional, political, or libidinous, depending on what she wishes to portray. Houston is a captivating performer full of drama and depth, perfectly formed for this show, and the kind who can shine in any other role on any stage. Her colleague Gareth Reeves is less vibrant in the role of Thomas, but equally solid and compelling. Reeves’ depiction of sexism from a male perspective is honest and surprisingly delicate. The authenticity of his work is key to the show’s intellectual effectiveness. The presentation of sexism as convoluted and inextricable gives the production an immense feeling of texture and an impression of interminable layers that plays on our minds relentlessly. Reeves’ commitment and focus gives the show an air of confidence, which allows us to lose ourselves in the plot, and let the players take us on a ride of extremes.
Design elements are understated but necessarily so. Sound and lights contribute greatly to psychological dimensions that are always in play. Aside from a few thunderous roars and purposefully abrupt light changes, Sian James-Holland (lighting designer) and Jessica James-Moody (composer and sound designer) work quietly to add to tensions and atmosphere without drawing attention to themselves. Realistic costume design by Mel Page also serves plot and characters beautifully without too much embellishment, although some fetishistic leather items do seem to have an ebullient effect on some members of the audience.
Telling stories about the other, inevitably makes one an easy target for criticism. Men writing plays about the subjugation of women can never escape chastisement, but an artist stepping into a minefield provides opportunities to reflect on the worst and most rarely visited recesses of our being. David Ives’s perspectives are unique and refreshing in contemporary discourse on issues of gender and sex. It takes a lot of sophistication to get into discussions that flow erratically like experimental jazz music, but Venus In Fur‘s consistent resonances assure us of the validity of its many controversial ideas. There are few things more valuable in art than its analysis of repressed or forbidden subjects, especially when they address the fundamentals of all human life, like love, sex, and the struggle for who gets to be on top.