Shiny, shiny leather: Tasting the whip of Company O’s new production Venus in Fur
Local theatre company, Company O, are bringing David Ives’ play Venus in Fur to Fridays Studio from Thursday, November 16 to Sunday, November 19, with tickets on sale now. Venus in Fur tells the story of Thomas Novachek, a director/playwright, who has suffered through a long day of abysmal auditions for his adaptation of the German sadomasochistic novel Venus in Furs, until Vanda, a crass and pushy actress, stumbles into his audition room and convinces him to let her read for the role. BRAYDEN EDWARDS spoke to Artistic Director and leading man Andrew O’Connell to find out the story behind Company O, the performance, and the gripping power play that ensues.
Congrats on bringing Company O’s production of Venus in Fur to Fridays Studio in November. How long have you been planning to bring this play to life in Perth?
Well, the first spark of the idea to bring ‘Venus’ to Perth occurred probably around 10 years ago after I saw a production of it in Sydney. I immediately loved the play for its male-female conflict, the heightened sexuality which brings that conflict into high relief, and, admittedly, I was able relate to ‘Thomas’, a playwright struggling to cast a play he is deeply passionate about. However, there was something about the production I remained dissatisfied with. While I’d describe the production I saw as brilliant, I felt it had missed the mark somewhat. I felt the story had remained on a superficial level due to a lack of direction for its antagonist, ‘Vanda.’
More recently, about two years ago, I again turned my attention to Venus in Fur and tried to work out, in conjunction with with some experts in various fields as well as fellow theatre-makers in the community, what I believed were the hidden, deeper meanings and true purpose of the play. When I was confident we had that deeper understanding, we got underway.
The original novella Venus in Furs was released by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch back in 1870. I heard that some of the story was inspired by his own life, and this is where we get the term ‘masochism’ from? What more can you tell us about this intriguing character…
It’s all a bit complicated. Venus in Fur, the play written by American playwright David Ives, published in 2010, is about a character called ‘Thomas’ who is, in turn, a playwright. ‘Thomas’ has written his OWN play called Venus in Fur, based on a real novel called Venus in Furs, originally written in 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name we got the word ‘masochism’. A ‘masochist’, generally speaking, is someone who derives pleasure from experiencing pain. A ‘sadist’, as a point of comparison, is someone who enjoys the suffering of others. The term ‘sadomasochism’, consequently, reflects the interplay between these two phenomena.
This play version isn’t just a re-enactment of the novella, how is it different from the original story?
David Ives’ Venus in Fur is similar to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs inasmuch as the male character in each story gets their ‘just desserts’ after mistreating women. But unlike ‘Severin von Kusiemski,’ in von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs, who meets a woman and becomes obsessed with her, ‘Thomas’ in David Ives’ Venus in Fur, is trying to find a woman to play the lead role in his play, also called Venus in Fur.
The play starts with Thomas on the phone complaining to his partner: there are no women who are good enough, none who fit the bill, none who are up to the challenge – but as he is about to end auditions for the day, an odd woman called Vanda – coincidentally the name of the character Thomas is trying to find an actor for, barges in and demands she be given the chance to audition. You’ll have to come to the show to find out what happens next!
And how have Company O put their own stamp on the production? What were your favourite things about the play that you made a priority?
We’ve actually turned to depth psychology for a better understanding and interpretation of this play and the events in it, so we’ve looked at some of the things notable psychologists such as Freud and Jung have had to say about the unconscious, the ‘Self’, and the role sexuality plays in our lives in terms of our behaviour.
The play is feminist but we wanted to avoid patent feminism in order to make the conflict worth people’s time. We wanted to avoid the ‘easy option’, where a ‘man-eater’ destroys a man, because we don’t believe audiences want foregone conclusions. Yes, (spoiler alert!) ’Vanda’ triumphs in the end but we wanted to explore how a woman triumphs when faced with a formidable opponent. So, perhaps the most exciting part about working on this play has been finding ways for ‘Vanda’ to ‘one-up’ ‘Thomas’ without being militant.
With quite a small cast, portraying the characters and the dynamics between them must be central to the show. Who have you enlisted to bring this story to life on stage?
This is definitely an ensemble work. Emerging Perth actor, Codey Finlay has been cast as Vanda with myself, Company O Artistic Director, Andrew O’Connell playing Thomas.
We’ve drawn on experienced theatre-maker Teresa Izzard from Feet First Collective to help us with direction, dramaturgy, and movement, and consulted with depth psychologist Stuart Goodwin in the early stages of development to help us better understand the psychology and dynamics underlying masochism and how Greek mythology informs the play. We also have musical director Krispin Maesalu on board, who has developed a very interesting soundscape to enhance the darker moments of the play.
What’s the story behind Company O? How are you doing things differently from others in the local theatre scene?
2023 marks 10 years of Company O. We actually started our journey in Sydney with Salome, a rarely performed play written by Oscar Wilde, and we’ve been performing plays a bit ‘left of centre’ ever since including Oleanna, Thom Pain, Diary of a Madman, No Exit, and Yasmina Reza’s Art. (Thom Pain and Art were both nominated for theatre awards for Fringe World 2017, and Fringe World 2022, respectively).
We’ve also debuted three new Australian plays. Besides our choices for plays, Company O has differentiated themselves by where they have chosen to perform the plays – an attic, a rehearsal space in a heritage building, a bespoke shipping container, and an art gallery are some of the places where Company O has performed.
What’s next for Company O this summer and beyond? Anything new in the pipeline we can look forward to?
Well, since you asked, we’d like to give X-Press the exclusive. Company O’s main-stage production for September 2024 will be the one and only Waiting for Godot, by Samuel Beckett. We are nervous! Be sure to follow us on Facebook and Instagram and check us out at companyo.com.au