THE play Venus In Fur, written by David Ives, is based on a book of the same name, authored by the 19th century author, philosopher and journalist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, from whose name the term “masochism” was derived. That’s enough to immediately pique an actor’s curiosity …
“Steven Stead and Greg King from the KickstArt theatre company went to the US on a bit of a mission to see what was out there,” says Janna Ramos-Violante (far right), who stars as Vanda, a young woman who undergoes a transformation as the narrative plays out.
“They caught Venus In Fur on Broadway with Nina Arianda and Hugh Dancy, and they envisioned that it would be a good play for me and [co-star] Neil Coppen. For us, it’s incredibly exciting that it’s so current. They gave it to me to read and I said:’Of course!’.”
It’s wonderful that South Africa is getting such material as a matter of priority now – Arianda won a Tony Award for her role, and it’s only recently finished it’s run in New York.
But how much does that profile – and indeed the story itself – come into the appeal of the play, which is superficially in the titillating images associated with it, and the taboos they suggest? “The play is incredibly sexy, and there’s a lot of the power play that comes with dealing with a subject like sado-masochism,” says Ramos-Violante.
“But it’s also an incredibly intelligent play. It’s a great piece for now, and for adults.
“We’ve had an incredible response from an almost non theatre-going audience, because we’ve been able to attract good numbers of young adults to come and see it.
“The play is very accessible, but at the same time, there is a major theatrical element.
“It’s voyeuristic, and the audience has got such a big part to play, because that’s what makes it sexy. It also switches from the present to the past all the time, so it’s a roller-coaster.”
It is a play within a play – a playwright is auditioning for a role he needs filled as part of the story. Ramos-Violante is a playwright, director and actress playing an actress, and Coppen is a playwright, director and actor playing a playwright. Is it possible to separate all the complicated headspaces?
“We also have Steven Stead as a director, so we had wonderful conversations, pulling it apart. When you are a playwright yourself, your approach is different – we had lots of giggles about it in the rehearsal room, but I think ultimately you maybe find a way to delve into it a bit deeper.”
So you’re not thinking that you might direct yourself differently were the roles switched around?
“No,” smiles Ramos-Violante.
“Steven and Neil and I are all good friends, so there’s a great trust. And to do the best you can, you need to hand that power over to that friend, and give him that trust. There’s a lot of debate and argument – we all want to create the best thing we possibly can.”
In the play, Vanda is a powerful, demanding character, while Ramos-Violante, though hugely talented and capable, is a bubbly, friendly sort. As a theatre creator, though, the latter loves to bring to life strong female roles. How is the desire to communicate strength balanced with the problems associated with some of the associated connotations (bossiness, for example)?
“Vanda has a slow curve in the play,” Ramos-Violante clarifies.
“She doesn’t suddenly just take control. When it begins, Vanda has strong views, but she’s trying to please Severin, Neil’s character. But the relationship shifts, and it’s very interesting. It’s all in the writing. David Ives has written a fantastic script, and when you have words like these backing you up, it’s that much easier.”