The appeal of a woman in fur needs to be psychological: the promise of animality and the promise of wealth all rolled into one. Two theatre productions in Istanbul, "Venus in Fur" and "Madonna in a Fur Coat" address this attraction, and considering them in succession lets us follow the genealogy of this fascination.
"Venus in Fur" written in 2010 by David Ives is a clever play about a theater director trying to adopt the now almost mythological book "Venus in Furs" written in 1870 by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Yes, it is the Sacher-Masoch who gave masochism its name. The novelhas been an inspiration for several other works of art, paintings and songs. And in the play Ives tackles the text through a story of trying to tackle it. It's always a clever conceit this: "I am not adapting the holy book 'Venus in Furs'. I am giving you the story of a man who was trying to adapt it."
A scene from the play "Venus in Fur."
"Venus in Fur" ("Kürklü Venüs") is the fourth production of the relatively new Turkish acting company Yolcu Tiyatro. The company has been formed only in 2012, and for all that, they bring a lot of sophistication to this playful play. Yolcu Tiyatro don't have their own space, so you will have to follow ticketing websites in order to catch a performance. I learnt about the production through a leaflet I saw at another theatre: a black and white photograph of the two characters in the play: the theater director Thomas Novachek (played by Ersin Umut Güler) and the unnamed actress that walks into his studio the moment he has given up finding the perfect Wanda von Dunayew for his production (played by Pervin Bağdat). They are posed somewhat provocatively, she in a bustier, long nickers and suspenders, he in a fur coat that reveals part of chest. I speak of this in detail because there is a funny reference to it during the play. As Novachek and the unnamed actress are rehearsing Novachek's adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's book, Novachek says that the sure way of bringing in the audience to the theater is to have a sexy poster. So we are warned: if we have come to the theater to be titillated, that was only the ruse that the producers used. The play Novachek wants to put on is about the sometimes not so "natural" nature of attraction.
The Sacher-Masoch story that Novachek is trying to adapt to the stage is that of a young man, Severin von Kusiemski, who meets Wanda von Dunayew at a holiday resort, and his insistence of becoming her lover, to the extent that he agrees to becoming her slave. The story goes against the conventional understandings of attraction, a man wanting to submit to a woman rather than vice-versa. The Venus in fur, in the Sacher-Masoch novel, appears in the framing story before we get to the story of Severin. And what this play, and indeed this production proves is that in matters of attraction and heightening of feeling, atmosphere and timing is everything. The audience - through Novachek and the unnamed actress's acting - enter the world of Severin and Wanda, and just as you feel you are in the room with them as they get closer, the suspension of disbelief is broken, usually by a wry comment by the unnamed actress who criticizes the way Sacher-Masoch has portrayed female behavior and emotions.
This "man having to submit to the woman" theme has been taken up, as many of you will know, by Sabahattin Ali in his 1943 novel "Madonna in a Fur Coat" - yet another story of a man attracted to a woman in fur. This time the furred woman in question is a painting, and our protagonist has the fatal luck of meeting the real life version of this Madonna. The book is a much-loved classic, and will pull in the crowds no matter who performs in it. Such was also my attitude when, despite my better judgment, I bought a ticket for it in a "performance space" far from downtown, a space that is usually reserved for blockbuster musicals and concerts. So this was to be an "event" rather than an evening at the theater. The venue being more of a "show" space, I wondered if they would do away with the 'story within a story' aspect of the novel and stick with the love story in Berlin. A few minutes into the performance I already wished they had.
My heart sank even before the performance started, when I sat down and looked at the stage to see that there were several white panels on which passages from the novel were projected. This is the kind of idea that would seem really cool to a middle school kid trying to mount a production of "Madonna in a Fur Coat." The alarm bells started to ring even more loudly when I saw that the first actor to appear on sage was wearing microphones. For a narrative that is told very economically, this expansion into a concert space, with concert paraphernalia seemed very wrong. Then, what hope there was of this being a bearable production was wiped away when the hapless character Rasim opened his mouth, to enunciate Ali's prose in the most "theatrical" manner possible, to rob it from all feeling. Actor after actor assumed the same "theatrical" mode, and as if that wasn't enough, they started to saw the air with their hands, and I kid you not, started beating their chests, which made the microphones, which were other times engaged in producing a back echo when two actors got too close, thump.
It is only through a chance meeting the next day that I learned that this grotesqueness had been intentional, that the actors had been told to "play big." This sort of allayed my fears for the state of Turkish theater: it hadn't been purely bad acting, the director had asked for it. This decision to make one of the most melancholy texts of Turkish literature into a grotesque spectacle becomes even more suspect when one considers the producer of the play, Tuba Ünsal, who also plays Maria Puder, the painter of the self portrait that gives the novel/play its name. Through all the exaggeration and chest beating, her performance comes across as the most natural in the play, and her scenes become the most watchable. However, it is not an evening I would wish even upon my enemies.