Review: Venus in Furs ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Review: Venus in Furs

Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, adapted by Neal Harvey, directed by Marcel Dorney. Design by Lucie Sprague, lighting design by Tristan Bourke, sound design and compisition by Dani Kirby. With Angus Grant, Joel Radcliffe and Karen Roberts. Elbow Room @ Theatreworks, St Kilda, Melbourne, until May 18. Bookings: (03) 9534 3388

The 19th century writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch earned himself a dubious form of immortality when the psychiatrist Krafft-Ebing named a sexual perversion after him. These days, with the Marquis de Sade, he is best remembered as half of the term sado-masochism. But the contemporary image of a leather-clad dungeon mistress that this evokes is a poor reflection of the literature that inspired it. Neither the monstrous boredom of Sade’s vicious fantasies nor the cruel utopian desires of Sacher-Masoch are straightforward texts.

Both can be argued to be about liberation. Sade’s novels Justine or 120 Days of Sodom, written in prison during the French Revolution, enact a philosophy of the libertine, a succession of endless orgies and increasingly cruel sexual permutations which evoke a loathsome tedium, a savage view of human behaviour that directly argued with the basics tenets of the Enlightenment. Sacher-Masoch’s novel, Venus in Furs, is on the other hand a product of late romanticism. And although his novel is often called, with some justification, a misogynist book that takes the ancient war of the sexes to a logical conclusion, it contains an interesting paragraph that ought to give pause to easy dismissal.

Woman, claims Sacher-Masoch, is inevitably man’s enemy. "She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion," he says. "This she can become only when she has the same rights as he, and is his equal in education and work." Sacher-Masoch shares Nietzsche’s insight that passive, destructive femininity is a creation of men themselves.

The “woman question”, in fact, haunted the intelligentsia of the late 19th century. The same idea illuminates Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, in which Nora is trapped in a marriage that infantalises her, playing the role of a frivolous, expensive woman to please her husband. Sacher-Masoch’s critique of the crippling effects of socially determined gender roles on sexual relationships is a crucial key to the novel, and perhaps the most radical statement in it.

This idea is vaguely present in Neal Harvey’s theatrical adaptation, but never as explicit as it is in the book. Harvey’s adaptation is elegantly theatrical, with only a couple of dramaturgical hiccups (notably towards the end), and has focused more on the destructive force of idealism, which through the force of its visionary desire can scorch reality to bare earth.

The hero Severin (Angus Grant) is a bored, independently wealthy young man who encounters his nemesis, Wanda (Karen Roberts) while he is staying in a hotel. She is an unconventional and sensual woman who unashamedly pursues her own pleasure without heed for societal conventions. Severin immediately falls obsessively in love with her and, unable to contemplate the prospect of losing her, begs to be Wanda’s slave.

She is initially reluctant to fulfil his fantasy, but discovers an inner capacity for tyranny that thrills and alarms her, and which she takes further than Severin intended or imagined. He literally creates his cruel mistress out of his desire for a pure, ecstatic love: a love that clearly has very little to do with Wanda’s own desires, but which inevitably schools her in a new and vicious pleasure.

Marcel Dorney gives us a production of intelligent clarity, enacted on a minimal set. Lucie Sprague’s design consists of draped black curtains that can be lit to be opaque or transparent, exploiting the cavernous space of Theatreworks by at once defining a domestic interior and – through the transparencies – a darker emptiness outside it. The luxurious fabrics of the costumes and furniture summon a fin de siecle aesthetic of sensual pleasure.

The direction focuses on Sacher-Masoch’s lushly beautiful language, and elicits two courageous performances that are leavened with a cool and bitter irony. As the reluctant goddess released into her power, Roberts steps unerringly between brittle dismay and disturbing pleasure in her cruelty and power. And Grant’s performance as Severin gives a startling verisimilitude to a role that embraces both comic desolation and passionate obsession. It’s worth seeing for the performances alone.

I did feel afterwards that something was missing, although it’s hard to put my finger on it: perhaps it’s as minor as a slight lack of sharpness in the lighting and the writing, subtle beats missed or held too long. Or perhaps I would have liked to see a tougher exploration of those gender questions, which remain vexed and pertinent 130 years after they were written.

This production made me wonder why so many young theatre artists here are obsessed with the 19th century. What is it about late romanticism or early modernism that is so sparking imaginations? As well as Venus in Furs, recently we’ve seen several productions, mainly courtesy of The Hayloft Project: they've mounted Platonov and Spring Awakening, and later this week I'm off to see Stravinsky’s A Soldier’s Tale.

Aside from the obvious attractions of the beautiful language of these texts, it’s hard not to speculate that some kind of reclamation is taking place, a return to some of the nascent explorations that were blown apart by the catastrophic events of the 20th century, in particular the second world war. It’s not nostalgia I’m sensing here, but a certain curiosity, a certain desire, and I’m intrigued to see where it leads.

A shorter version of this review appeared in yesterday's Australian.


Geoffrey said...

Thank you for another wonderful read Alison.

FWIW, your observation about the obsession with the 19th Century reminded me of a story I heard about ten years ago from a work colleague. She had gone home from work the night before and found her young, troublesome, tearaway 17 year old son wanting to take her to the movies. She was astonished! She agreed, and he took her to see "Titanic". (We need to suspend our own judgements about the film at this point.)

After the movie was over, as they walked home from the cinema, she asked her son what he liked about the film. His answer was:

"It's the romance, mum. It's so romantic."

In this era, romance is certainly missing ... no more so than for those who have never written a love letter (as in with a pen and paper) because that was your only choice, dated (other than through the countless online facilities) and took the time to be silent in someone you love's company (without them checking or sending text messages or racing along to their next appointment).

I think it is romance that is at least a something about which we look back on. The exploration may be about the lack of it our life and our art today.

TimT said...

In my teenage years, I might have made a similar excuse to see Titanic - maybe something about the characters being so fully developed, or the plot being really symbolic and stuff. Though what I would have really thrilled to - and what Cameron does really well in Titanic - was the awesome thrill and spectacle of the catastrophe.

The truth is, in 'Titanic', there's nothing especially original or well-thought-out about the romance or the characters; they follow a standard science-fiction rule, in that the characters and the plot is so fantastic precisely so the spectacle and the grand evocations of nature and culture can have their sublime effect. In this sense the plot and characters and effects all complement one another.

If you subtracted the catastrophe, the scenes of the Titanic going underwater and the brilliant set-design out of that film, would you be left with an early 20th century romance? No - you'd have a set of platitudes that you could just as easily find in the latest Bridge Jones film about true love, sacrifice, etc.

TimT said...

Correction. This:

The truth is, in 'Titanic', there's nothing especially original or well-thought-out about the romance or the characters; they follow a standard science-fiction rule, in that the characters and the plot is so fantastic precisely so the spectacle and the grand evocations of nature and culture can have their sublime effect.

- should be this:

The truth is, in 'Titanic', there's nothing especially original or well-thought-out about the romance or the characters; they follow a standard science-fiction rule, in that the characters and the plot are so ordinary precisely so the spectacle and the grand evocations of nature and culture can have their sublime effect.

Geoffrey said...

What I imagine the boy was articulating was a simplified, but equally compelling, response to the elements you are isolating Tim ... minus the critical prowess.

The romance of the era is captured magnificently (both visually and in the performances) in the film, even if we can be critical of character, etc.

Alison Croggon said...

I must be the only person in the western world who never saw Titanic. I'm bad with film. One day...

I know what you mean, Geoffrey, and I suspect a certain romanticism (and certainly a certain sensuality) is part of the attraction, but I suspect something else is going on. The texts they're doing are so much part of the mix of ideas that informed the 20th century - the beginnings of psychology, questions about gender, political radicalism and class consciousness and so on. And in WW1 (and especially after the total destruction of WW2, the deaths of unimaginable millions, the Holocaust, the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki) certain faiths in civilisation were completely smashed, and what we got was a huge social alienation. Or something like that. And that impulse to reach back to those early threads, before they were cauterised by catastrophe, makes total sense to me. The narrative ran one way, towards destruction and nihilism, but is that the only way it can run? And maybe it's only now we can begin to look again and find what's there. Only guessing.

George Hunka said...

I know what you'll say -- woeful, pessimistic me -- but that's the problem with going back a century or more to those impulses before the destructiveness of the 20th century: that there's a school of thought that implicates those very impulses in that ultimate destructiveness. The sturm-und-drang extremes of German romanticism led to calls for the purification of the German spirit, and the secular bourgeois puritanism of the Victorian age in Europe led to the profound repression of transgressive sensuality, even as it was bursting out all over in Sacher-Masoch and Krafft-Ebing. In the US we see this all the time in the advertising that withholds just as much as it exhibits, in the profoundly idiotic way we treat sex education (not to mention a recrudescence of virgin-'til-marriage efforts that seems to lie in the revival of evangelical Christianity, itself a reprise of the series of "Great Awakenings" that took place here several times through the country's history).

That's what's worrisome to me about this nostalgia (and it is that, I think, rather than a re-examination or revival of these sensual threads). I hope for a different outcome too, in many ways, and I'm not as much a pessimist as some may think. I do hope it's not a replay: that we'll listen to visionaries, our own versions of Wedekind and Freud and Schoenberg, instead of consigning them to the margins, as was done in the years before 1933. But we've got to find them and bring them to the attention of the culture first.

George Hunka said...

(By the way, it's not just advertising that participates in this strange puritanism, but movies, novels ... and so much theatre, even in plays that seriously claim to be about sex, as well.)

Alison Croggon said...

Hi George - I wish you could see these productions, because if you saw something like Platonov you would realise that it's very much a production of now, not just a costume drama (which is pretty much what the movies are). And very much not about that weird puritanism you describe, more a kind of look at how those repressions still underly so many of our own assumptions and behaviours, although Australia is profoundly different from the US here. And also, I think, a reaching towards a certain kind of intellectual energy. I'm totally aware of the school of thought that implicates those energies in what happened in world war 2, but strikes me as a profound misunderstanding, like thinking Nietzsche was about Nazism, a phenomenon that he actually foresaw in Germany and totally loathed. When Goering quoted Nietzsche, he got him very wrong. (Not saying here that Nietzsche was a nice fellow, but he was never about something like Fascism) Is that inherently Nietzsche's fault? And is Fascism inevitably a product of a philosopher who claimed that he was, rather, a philosopher of joy? Maybe that's a question that couldn't be asked until now.

George Hunka said...

I wish I could be there to see Platonov too, Alison. I've seen enough very good contemporary productions of potential creakers like The Emperor Jones and The Misanthrope that work terrifically as examinations of contemporary forces instead of being pressed into costumes as museum pieces, so I know it can be done.

I don't blame Nietzsche for Naziism any more than I blame Voltaire for the Reign of Terror. To locate those impulses in a cultural product isn't to place blame on anyone for their expression, surely; I'm not interested in assigning fault (not to individuals or citizens of any particular country, anyway). And I'm pretty sure we're in agreement on the puritanism issue; as I said in my comment, the same repressions underlie this puritanism: perhaps in a different guise or costume, in yellow coattails like Goethe's Werther or blue jeans like the kids in the Broadway musical of Spring Awakening, but they're there nonetheless.