The sado-masochistic evening at the theatre you’ve been waiting for | Jo Caruana & Thomas Camilleri

Teodor Reljic speaks to actors Jo Caruana and Thomas Camilleri, who will be taking on the David Ives play-within-a-play Venus in Fur in what promises to be an erotically-charged two-hander laced with dark humour

Jo Caruana and Thomas Camilleri in David Ives’ Venus in Fur – produced by Masquerade Theatre Company and directed by Michael Mangion
Jo Caruana and Thomas Camilleri in David Ives’ Venus in Fur – produced by Masquerade Theatre Company and directed by Michael Mangion

Thomas, a theatre writer-director is auditioning the female lead for an upcoming theatrical adaptation of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s groundbreaking domineering female sexuality novel Venus in Furs (which gave us the term ‘masochism’). But when the headstrong and canny Wanda shows up, he finds himself caught up in a psycho-sexual power dynamic that more than matches the themes of the source novel. Teodor Reljic speaks to actors Jo Caruana and Thomas Camilleri, who will be taking on the David Ives play-within-a-play Venus in Fur in what promises to be an erotically-charged two-hander laced with dark humour.

What excites you most about this play, and forming part of the demented double-act at its core?

Thomas Camilleri: That I’m terrified. After getting over the warm, fuzzy feeling of being asked to do the play I sat down to read it and was shaking my head at every page thinking, “I’ll never be able to do this”. Besides being hard to do from a purely line-learning aspect, it’s the psychological aspect that needs tapping into that daunts me. As a person, I like to be in control and the play takes both characters through an evolution which sees them swapping roles in every which way. So, after a lot of thought I decided that I didn’t want to do this, I needed to. It’s definitely far away outside my comfort zone and that’s what excites me.

Jo Caruana: Definitely the sheer challenge of it. The piece asks a lot of its actors – whether it’s the range of accents required, the depth of emotion, or the shifts between characters, attitudes and even perceived periods in time. Like Tom, I haven’t done a two-hander before, so that in itself is very exciting. The line learning is less exciting, and more terrifying! But challenge is a good thing, and it’s been a while since I stepped out of my comedy comfort zone and into something a little more profound. This play is certainly profound. 

The play is a layered affair, being a kind of in-the-works adaptation of the Sacher-Masoch novel, as another play unfolds right before our eyes. How are you going about discovering what’s the true core of the story, and its characters?

Camilleri: The book was revolutionary when it was published and the author had guts to write something like that in 1870. I wish I could read it in German but I’m sure the translation’s faithful – even though the last one was almost 100 years ago. It’s not an easy read but it’s part of the discovery of the characters because not only do I have to figure out Thomas the author but I also have to glean what Thomas has in mind for his interpretation of both the characters from his play.

Caruana: I’m asking lots of questions! Both of myself, and of the team (Tom, of course, and our director Michael [Mangion]). It has taken me a while to get my head around it but, on each new read, I discover something new about the plot or the character, and come to love it even more. But yes, it is layered, and it’s not the sort of script that just plays out on a predicable path. Far from it. In fact, we are having to coax some of the more ambiguous elements into shape based on our own opinions – which may or may not be what the playwright had in mind. Either way, disclaimer: thinking required. 

Much like the titular novel, the play gets plenty of mileage out of gender power dynamics. How do you feel about the way David Ives treats this subject, and what was your first reaction to the way the characters manipulate this dynamic to their advantage as the play progresses?

Camilleri: The beauty of it is that one of the characters is undergoing this organic evolution throughout the play whereas the other is consciously unraveling each layer of change bit by bit. Admittedly, I was uncomfortable with Thomas’ journey because I know it’s very much against what I’d be comfortable with as a person. But to quote another Tom – “we’re actors, we’re the opposite of people”.

Caruana: At a time when gender roles (and rights) are being called into question, this play feels very timely. We all have roles to play and gender is one of them but, within Venus in Fur, it’s not that simple – stereotypical power struggles are turned on their head and all lines are blurred. The first time I read the play I was quite confused by Wanda; now I LOVE her. I think she has an agenda and a plan, and that she knows exactly what she’s doing. That’s quite liberating.  

Being a two-hander, there’s plenty of pressure on both of you to make the play work as tightly as possible. How are you ensuring your chemistry is on-point?

Camilleri: While being quite a challenge, we’re both dear friends and love working together. It’s daunting, revealing this vulnerable side of me to Jo again, last time being when I played a fireman who was in love with her in All New People, but I can’t think of a better person to be doing it with.

Caruana: Good to hear about the pressure! As Tom said, we’re very comfortable playing off one another, and I know I can trust him with anything, so there is no one I would rather be on this rather terrifying journey with! The chemistry will continue to develop over the next few weeks, as we keep becoming less of ourselves and more of Thomas and Wanda. 

What’s next for you?

Camilleri: Absolutely nothing. I need a break having gone straight from The Comedy Knights into this and I’m looking forward to a few big projects we’re working on at Switch (where I’m a Creative by day) as well as travelling a bit more. In October, I’ll be working offstage on Skylight at the MITP as set designer, a challenge I’m really looking forward to!

Caruana: Like Tom: NOTHING. Or nothing on-stage at any rate. I made a promise to myself a couple of years back that I wouldn’t go from one production to another because it’s unbelievably draining, but I broke it the second this wonderful opportunity came along. I am, of course, loving every moment of it, but your work/life balance does take a beating when you’re in a show and when 60 hour weeks become 90 hour ones. My companies (Writemeanything and Finesse Consulta) have recently taken on clients in Japan, so I will certainly be travelling there again in the months to come, while continuing to hopefully build our local and European business too.  

Venus in Fur is directed by Michael Mangion and produced by Masquerade Theatre Company. It will be staged at Blue Box, M Space, Msida on February 24, 25, 26 and March 3, 4, 5 March. Bookings: