ATC stages a seductive satire that aims to expose the politics of sex and power

Sex sells and that's quite obviously what Auckland Theatre Company had in mind when it shot the promotional image for Venus in Fur.

There's Auckland actor Morgana O'Reilly — all come-to-bed eyes and provocative pout — wearing nothing but a white sheet, seductively writhing on an all-white bed and clasping what look like leather hand-restraints.

It's a long way from Ramsay Street, the setting for Aussie soap Neighbours where we've most recently seen O'Reilly, but it's not a particularly gratuitous image; actually it's highly appropriate given she's promoting a play described as a sultry expose of sexual power.

A sexualised image selling a sexy play? It's a welcome change from women posing like that when they're selling bread or cars or farming equipment.

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Venus in Fur is based on the world's first S&M novel by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Roll his name round your mouth a few times, say it aloud and you'll hear the origin of the word masochism.

North American playwright David Ives, loved for his comic one-act plays, took the book and crafted a "laugh-out-loud" satire that exposes the politics of sex and power. It opened on Broadway in 2011, extended its season, won a Tony Award and, in 2013-2014, was the most produced contemporary play in the United States.

Staging it in Auckland has brought home three of our favourite ex-pats — O'Reilly, Craig Hall and director Shane Bosher — who've been working across the ditch. O'Reilly spent 18 months on Neighbours, Hall's just finished filming season four of A Place to Call Home and Bosher, artistic director of Silo Theatre for 13 years, has back-to-back directing jobs lined up in Sydney.

When Venus in Fur rehearsals began with a waiata, they knew they were well and truly home — albeit briefly.

Hall plays Thomas, a New York writer with control issues; he hates the way others have been staging his work so he's going to do it himself this time round — if only he can find the elusive perfect lead actress.

Cue thunder and lightning — the signs that there's trouble ahead are not subtle — and in tumbles Vanda (O'Reilly) who's late and appears to be like all the other wannabes Thomas has thus far rejected: vapid, needy and crude.

She proves to be more persuasive than the others and talks Thomas into giving her a go. What begins as a straightforward audition quickly becomes an all-engrossing battle of wits as the duo flip between the make-believe world of the script and reality.

Director Shane Boshier (left) with actors Morgana O'Reilly and Craig Hall. Photo / Michael Craig
Director Shane Boshier (left) with actors Morgana O'Reilly and Craig Hall. Photo / Michael Craig

But let's return to that image of O'Reilly and consider the quote "You don't take a photograph, you make it." It's from American photographer and environmentalist Ansel Adams and indicates the importance of knowing there's more to taking a great photo than simply pointing the camera and pushing a button.

Adams' quote has latterly been co-opted by South American artist Alfredo Jaar to prompt us to think about why a photograph was "made" in a certain way. What's it trying to make us think? Distract us from? Draw out attention to? Sell us? That comes to mind when you look at the image of O'Reilly; it's a true case of making a photo if ever there was one.

Seven weeks before she was artfully styled and photographed, O'Reilly gave birth to her first child, daughter Luna. The sheet hid post-baby bumps and lumps and if she was enthusiastic about the photo shoot, it was because it was a welcome escape from feeding schedules, nappy changes and endless amounts of washing.

It's funny when she tells it, but Venus in Fur co-star Hall and director Bosher look aghast in a "thank goodness I haven't had to go through that" kind of way. It's also an apt anecdote given Venus in Fur is about sexual politics, gender relations and equality.

"It's about how people negotiate the kind of terrain of relationships and gender politics and how sex and sexuality is as a force within all of that," Bosher says, "but one of the interesting things about the play is that it talks about not putting things in boxes because that limits the way something can be expressed. So it almost feels that by talking about what the play's about, we're reducing it and putting it a box when it actually operates on so many levels."

They say it's funnier than you might expect a play about gender politics and relations to be; that it's up to the audience to decide whether they want to sit back and laugh or muse on the ideas it offers up.

"It investigates and holds up to the light how gender is represented in popular culture and how it has been for the last couple of centuries," says O'Reilly.

"It's about looking at a piece of art and asking, 'whose story is that?' or 'what purpose does this serve?' but it doesn't point fingers.

"It does make you think about what the arts have contributed to our ideas —
when things are plot-driven instead of character-driven; you know, I get scripts these days and I am so used to the female character being a device for the male ones that I hardly notice now..."

Lowdown

What:

Venus in Fur

Where & when:

Aotea Centre, Herald Theatre, August 18-September 18