Venus in Fur, by David Ives | Directed by Grace Barnes

Darlinghurst Theatre | Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, Sydney | Until 5 July

Set in New York City, Venus in Fur is David Ives’ fairly unconventional two-hander telling the story of Thomas Novachek (Gareth Reeves), who has spent the day auditioning actresses to play the role of 19th century dominatrix, Wanda von Dunayein, in his adaptation of the cult 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, after whom the word ‘masochism’ was coined.

Ready to leave the rehearsal room with the role still not cast, Thomas is stopped by a wet and windswept Vanda (Anna Houston), who begs him to let her audition for the part and so begins the play within a play, as Thomas reads the role of Severin von Kushemski, a poet with a penchant for fur.

David Ives’ complex script intricately interweaves the relationship between playwright and aspiring actress. As the reading evolves, Vanda amps up her theatricality and fuses this with anger at male presumption and manipulation. She begins to slowly dominate the room, frequently stepping outside of her role to question Thomas about the implicit dynamics of the written relationship and its emotional and sexual subtext.

At the same time we discern that Vanda is remarkably well-prepared for the audition. Even though she arrives late, she has learnt all the lines in the script and has brought an array of costumes.

Anna Houston initially plays Vanda as brassy and coarse, then, adroitly merges her with the unbalanced Wanda, the all-powerful mistress.

Added to this she cleverly sparks our interest about the motives and identity of the mysterious Vanda. Houston renders a well-crafted performance, as does Reeves in a more subdued but subtly understated counterbalance.

Grace Barnes’ competent direction steers these admirable performances and enables exploration of the power dynamics; ably supported by Mel Page’s understated, spacious production design and Jessica James-Moody’s jolting, sound design that delivers intermittent thunderstorms which punctuate this complicated game of slave and master/mistress.

This is an intelligent play, about power and powerlessness, that challenges the status quo in many areas — the bedroom, the workplace and history. Worth a look.

Gareth Reeves and Anna Houston. Images: Helen White.