In 1870, Austrian novelist and teacher of history, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch published what was to become his most famous work, Venus in Furs.
Essentially a story within a story, it begins with a young man, who dreams of a conversation with Venus, the goddess of love. He awakes and while he is relating the dream to his friend, Severin, he realises the Venus in his dream is the same woman portrayed in a painting hanging in Severin’s study. Severin tries to cure his friend of his infatuation by handing him a journal which explains his relationship with the woman in the painting.
The manuscript tells the story of a younger Severin who falls desperately in love with Wanda. They describe for each other their perfect lover, which for Severin is a woman whom he can worship and dress in furs. His rather extreme fantasy is to be literally owned by his mistress and chastised by whipping should he disobey her wishes - or indeed simply for her own pleasure. For a while, Wanda indulges Severin’s desire and they live in a strict mistress/slave relationship until the lines between real life and fantasy become blurred and she can no longer maintain the role.
Venus in Furs is based on Sacher-Masoch‘s real life agreement with his mistress Fanny Pistor, in which he was legally contracted “to become her slave and to comply unreservedly for six months, with every one of her desires and commands.” For her part, Frau Pistor agrees to allow him six hours per day for “professional work” and to never read anything he wrote. She also promises “to wear furs as often as possible, especially when she is in a cruel mood.”
Just as the Marquis de Sade, a century earlier, lent his name to the practice which became known as sadism, the role of the submissive slave as established in Venus in Furs, took on the name of its chronicler Sacher-Masoch and, much to his displeasure, became known as masochism.
To date, the novella has inspired at least three film versions and numerous stage adaptations, the latest of which is presented by the former Brisbane-based, now Melbourne-based collective, Elbow Room, as part of the Theatreworks Company Initiative.
This fine adaptation by Neal Harvey is a pared back version of the original, focusing on the central relationship between Severin and Wanda. For all the scandal, and due largely to the strict censorship laws of the day, Sacher-Masoch’s novel contains little in the way of explicit detail and reads much like a romance novel. In this sense, Harvey, along with Director Marcel Dorney have remained true to the spirit and poetic intensity of the novel, exploring the emotional and psychological relationship without sensationalising the slave/mistress relationship.
In seeking the essence of the story Dorney has astutely chosen to strip back the entire production, with a simple yet elegant set (Lucie Sprague) and lighting design (Tristan Bourke), effectively conjuring the era without over complicating the stage.
The two leads, Angus Grant as Severin and Karen Roberts as Wanda, journey convincingly through the complex emotional terrain and effectively retain the sympathy of the audience while they engage in moral bargaining over their unconventional agreement.
Grant is excellent as the confident Severin, in a wide ranging role whose status constantly shifts. He imbues the character with a playfulness and a nice lightness of touch that only makes his darker moments all the more threatening.
Roberts as Wanda, in turn reviles and relishes the role of mistress and her well judged moments of self doubt keep the audience from ever feeling too comfortable. As a result the ending is never quite assured. Theatreworks is actually quite a beautiful venue to look at, but its high vaulted ceiling makes for appalling acoustics and I’m yet to see a production that wasn’t in some part marred as a result. While Roberts gives a strong performance, I found myself - just mid way up the seating - straining to hear much of her dialogue and her lack of vocal attack somewhat blunted the overall energy of the play.
At 90 minutes without interval, Elbow Room have created an elegant, mature work which manages well the subtle shifts of power of an unconventional romance and keeps the audience guessing right to the end.
The Theatreworks 2008 Company Initiative Program and Elbow Room present
a stage adaptation of
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s
Venus In Furs
Venue: Theatreworks, 14 Acland Street St. Kilda
Dates: May 1 - 18
Times: Tues - Sat @ 8.00pm; Sun @ 6.00pm
Tickets: $25 Full / $20 Conc.
Bookings: 9534 3388 / www.theatreworks.org.au