In a world of misunderstandings about sadomasochism propagated by various best-selling erotic novels such as 50 Shades of Grey, Venus in Fur sheds a different light.
The Tony-award nominated play has Vanda (portrayed by Steffanie Leigh who’s just ended her run playing Mary Poppins on Broadway) and Thomas (Anson Mount from Hell on Wheels) create a spellbinding, awe-inspiring production that keeps you glued to your seats at the DBS Arts Centre for an entire 90 minutes, without intermission.
The curtains part to reveal a low-lighted, tiny, decrepit office with a simple table and a velvet couch. Thunder and lightning frequently interrupt Thomas, a playwright and director to the adaption of the book Venus in Furs by Sacher-Masoch, as he speaks to his wife on the phone.
As he packs up to leave his office after a long day of failed auditions, Thomas tells his fiancée he has encountered “no beautiful-slash-sexy women” fit to play the lead character. He is interjected mid-sentence by relentless knocking on the door, and he opens it to a blabbering woman apologising for her tardiness.
Vanda introduces herself as the quintessential, struggling blonde actress, naïve and obnoxious, to Thomas, who believes she’s yet another one untalented, foolish wannabe.
After reluctantly agreeing to audition her, Vanda transforms into nothing but the lead character, also named Vanda, impressing Thomas to no end. Slowly, Thomas transforms into the male lead, Kushemski, and the pair come in and out of their respective characters with well-timed, witty one-liners, crossing between their fiction and reality.
The play grows gradually more intense, starting with Thomas being obviously the powerful one in the duo (since he gets to decide whether she’s cast) and Vanda the submissive, but slowly the lines are blurred, with the characters changing roles, and even clothes at one point, although no nudity is involved.
All minor symbolisms are looked into. For example, as Vanda gains total dominance over Thomas, it is mirrored even in the physical plane, as we also see minor changes in the way their characters look; Vanda starts as being a tad shorter than Thomas, but slips on boots and grows a few cm taller than him as soon as she achieves control.
Vanda also started in outrageous clothes: a puffy dress she insists fits her role as an 18th Century Victorian woman, but it’s Thomas who ends up humiliated in the end, clad in a leather collar, a skimpy dress and a long apron, stripped from his original V-neck t-shirt.
It soon gets difficult to distinguish the moments when Vanda and Thomas are truly themselves from the moments they are immersed in their characters within the audition. This shows the changes they go through both as Vanda and Thomas, and as Vanda and Kushemski.
The play, directed by Indonesian Ed Sylvanus Iskandar who is based in the Big Apple, takes all stereotypes of men and women with their respective gender roles and throws them out the window. This will surprise even the most alert of audience members and catch them off-guard, with scenes powerful enough to catch one’s breath away, without coming off as raunchy—no small feat for a play displaying sadomasochistic themes. The scenes go far enough, and just stop before it’s too much.
Mount and Leigh have an electrifying chemistry, making for a play that seems all too real at specific points, although Leigh, together with her effortless switching between both roles, sometimes snatches the spotlight right off Mount.
The play itself is nothing like 50 Shades of Grey, although many have compared them due to similar themes. Venus in Fur goes beyond what happens in a bedroom with two people consumed in lust, and instead, explores the dynamics and changes two genders go through.
Given the adult nature of the play and its NC16 rating, leave your younger siblings at home and catch Venus in Fur. This is a strong start to Singapore Repertory Theatre’s mainstage show of its 20th anniversary season.
Venus in Fur is extended until Apr 6, and tickets start from $40 at SISTIC.
All photos courtesy of Singapore Repertory Theatre.