Venus in Fur

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The critically acclaimed play Venus in Fur has been a hit across the US – and is showing in Hong Kong for the first time. Ysabelle Cheung speaks to the cast and director

Clad only in black lingerie, the whip of her tongue lashing down on her helpless victim – in this case, Thomas Novachek – Vanda Jordan posits a dynamic that has intrigued psychologists for endlessly: the sadistic woman on top with the masochistic man crawling at her feet. Jordan and Novachek’s interaction isn’t taking place in an underground cellar, however, but a sparse audition room, and the two are simply reading a script. Or are they?

In Candice Moore’s latest production, Venus in Fur, written by David Ives, Novachek is a cerebral but short-sighted writer-slash-director. He’s looking for a female lead for his latest play, the eponymous Venus in Fur, based on the 1870 erotic novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from which the term sadomasochism was coined. After a frustrating day of lacklustre auditions in his search for the right Wanda, Novachek is ready to call it a night. Until aspiring actress Jordan blows in from a freak storm, dropping vulgar throwaway colloquialisms that paint her as nothing more than an airhead.

However, like the the biblical Eve, the original mistress of sin, Jordan is at once amusingly naïve and dangerously irresistible – and more than capable of disarming the gullible Novachek and flipping the audition table. Novachek submits, both professionally and emotionally. It is this delicious, sexually-charged dynamic that has made the play a hit across the US since its 2010 off-Broadway premiere, spawning more productions than any other play this year, plus a Roman Polanski film, released this autumn. Local director Candice Moore is the first to bring it to Hong Kong.

“At the beginning there is a clear distinction between audition and reality, because you have the classical 19th-century speech and then contemporary speak. But as the play goes on, that line becomes blurred,” Moore explains, citing her interest in Ives’ script and narrative. “She [Jordan] does it very cleverly; you almost don’t realise it’s happening.” The cast of two are Muriel Hofmann and Andrew Swift, a pair that Moore says made the audition process easy because of their instant on-stage chemistry. Both roles are demanding: Vanda as the bewitching, feminist temptress (a role for which Broadway star Nina Arianda won a Tony Award) and Novachek as the defensive director, whose desires and judgments leave him at the mercy of Jordan, who he initially perceives as a Madonna/whore type.

Although the play is quite difficult energy-wise, I found this role quite natural," Swift admits. “I’m quite similar to Thomas. There’s a lot of intelligent bullshit out there that has put feminism in a certain light, and he ascribes to that. And what Vanda does is expose the myth and intelligence of feminism.”

The thrills aren’t just cheap, though, despite the presence of whips and a studded dog collar (plus an amusing ‘kiss my foot!’ scene) – the play demands conversation about females, males, and the interpretations of feminism and gender politics. This is all crammed into 90 minutes, sans breaks or off-stage time. Suffice to say, it gets a little heated. “It’s not just about sex, though and it’s not always the man that’s behaving a certain way… the roles get mixed,” Moore says. “Hopefully it’ll make the audience think, re-evaluate things – and laugh, too. It is a comedy, after all.”

Venus in Fur Fringe Club, Dec 12-14. Tickets: $240-$190; www.hkticketing.com.

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