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Playing with bondage

Director Sumedh Sarojini talks of the tricky business of staging David Ives’ widely acclaimed masochist play, Venus in Fur in India

The setting is a dim, minimalist stage where director Thomas Novachek (played by Sumedh Sarojini) is conducting auditions for the lead role of Wanda von Dunayev for his play, Venus in Fur, based on the 1870 novel by Austrian writer Leopold Sacher-Masoch. He has called it a day and is about to pack his bags, when a certain Vanda Jordan (played by Pooja Kshatriya) makes a dramatic entry on the thunderous evening. Scatterbrained and clumsy, Vanda is not even remotely like the leading lady Thomas has visualised. However, she convinces him to allow her an audition. As soon as she starts reading the script, Vanda transforms, into an assertive, dominant, outrageously desirable woman. She becomes Wanda.

Last week, Pooja Kshatriya accidentally cut Sumedh Sarojini’s neck while rehearsing the play’s climax
Last week, Pooja Kshatriya accidentally cut Sumedh Sarojini’s neck while rehearsing the play’s climax

The magic of Masoch’s novel and its theatrical depiction by playwright David Ives in 2010, is what director Sumedh Sarojini hopes to recreate in his play that will premiere at the National Centre for Performing Art's Experimental Theatre on July 24. Ives’ two-person play was premiered off-Broadway at the Classic Stage Company in 2010 and on Broadway in 2011. The next year, director Roman Polanski shot a film version in French. It starred his wife Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Amalric.

“I had read the book first, and then the play, and was intrigued by both. Although at the face of it, the play is about BDSM (Bondage, Dominance and Submission, Sadism and Masochism) it’s more of an intellectual thriller that explores gender politics, power play and relationships,” says Sarojini, dismissing references to the widely popular erotic novel, 50 Shades of Grey by British author E L James.

Sarojini, who has been working on the script for the past one year, says he has followed Ives’ original plot, refraining from tweaking it for an Indian audience. “I wanted it to first premiere in Mumbai because I kwill find an audience here that will go beyond its face value,” says the Pune-based playwright, also an independent filmmaker.

While zeroing on a suitable venue was a source of worry for the 35-year-old, another overriding concern was to find a suitable female lead. His search ended with Pooja Kshatriya, who has been part of his production house, Orange Reason and worked with him on Anton Chekov’s Bear, which was staged in Pune in 2014.

Kshatriya, who has been preparing for the role for six months, feels the biggest challenge of playing the character was the character itself. “There are multiple layers to Vanda. She switches from being frivolous to a powerful, dominating woman who understands the nuances of erotic manipulation. The balancing act was toughest,” says the 28-year-old.

The duo, who have been rehearsing since January, spent the first month reading the script to deconstruct the characters and discover hidden layers. “With each reading, we would end up getting a better understanding of the play. The characters oscillate from being submissive to dominating. This, you realise only with multiple readings,” says Sarojini. The 90-minute play also makes references to Greek mythology. For instance, Thomas’ reference to God ,Dionysus, the son of Zeus. These required them to spend hours researching on the subject. However, they are not worried about the references to the script being lost on the audience.“The best part is the way Ives has written it — complex, yet simple. When Thomas makes Greek references, you will see Vanda asking him questions about it,” says Sarojini.

Although the play is peppered with erotic and intense moments, there wasn’t any awkwardness between Sarojini and Kshatriya during rehearsals. However, the duo won’t forget one instance that ended on a rather harsh note. “Last week, when we were rehearsing the climax, I got so immersed in the character that I ended up accidentally hurting Sumedh’s neck,” says Kshatriya with a shudder. “I even cried after that,” she adds.

However, both Sarojini and Kshatriya are back to rehearsing, and hoping to win the Mumbai audience with their brave venture.

Cast: Sumedh Sarojini and Pooja Kshatriya
When: July 24, 7.30 pm
Where: National Centre for the Performing Arts, NCPA Marg, Nariman Point
Tickets: Rs 300-500

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