tue 23/07/2024

Venus in Fur, Theatre Royal Haymarket review - pain and pleasure in a starry two-hander | reviews, news & interviews

Venus in Fur, Theatre Royal Haymarket review - pain and pleasure in a starry two-hander

Venus in Fur, Theatre Royal Haymarket review - pain and pleasure in a starry two-hander

It's Fifty Shades of Auditioning in this tricksy erotic comedy

Just an act? Vanda (Natalie Dormer) rehearses with Thomas (David Oakes)© Bill Knight for theartsdesk

A hit on Broadway, David Ives’s steamy two-hander now boasts Natalie Dormer and David Oakes, well-known for their screen work, in its West End cast, with Patrick Marber on directing duties.

That plus the tabloid panting over Dormer’s skimpy S&M attire should certainly sell tickets, but Ives’s piece has also gained spikiness from recent interrogation of the casting couch and the murky intertwining of sex and power.

Actress Vanda (Natalie Dormer) arrives late to audition for a new play by writer/director Thomas Novachek (Oakes) based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s kinky 1870 novel Venus in Furs, which gave us the term “masochism”. Though initially presenting herself as ignorant and gauche, Vanda is surprisingly word-perfect, has a bag of flawless period costumes, and her incarnation of the character – also named Vanda – is spookily good. As Thomas’s control ebbs away, Ives teases out the all-important question of who really (ahem) holds the whip hand.Venus in Fur, Theatre Royal Haymarket On the surface, it’s a satisfying revenge comedy, with the belittled actress turning the tables on the arrogant director. (For extra meta points, Polanski cast his own wife in his film adaptation.) Vanda’s playing dumb induces a bout of mansplaining from Thomas, later disputed by her crisp insights, and she gradually blurs their positions, first tempting him to act opposite her – portraying the willingly enslaved nobleman Kushemski – then beginning to direct him.

But Ives’s taut 90-minute piece is constantly swerving, offering a sly examination of gender politics and both theatrical and erotic role-play. Vanda wonders whether Thomas’s work is fuelled by personal fantasy, and challenges him on the sexist injustice of a man either urging a woman into subversive behaviour, then judging her for it, or assuming she really wants to be dominated. S&M emerges in terms of desire – submission granting control, pain pleasure – and through power play like Thomas rudely making calls to his fiancée mid-audition, though Vanda astutely notes that said fiancée’s comparative wealth means she has control. Of course, the Weinstein of it all does lend darker connotations to lines like “You wouldn’t fuck me on the floor if you thought you could get away with it?”.Venus in Fur, Theatre Royal Haymarket There’s also a supernatural element via the reincarnation of the goddess Venus, and Marber’s production leans fully into the operatic ghost story – to great effect. Rob Howell's evocative New York audition space is a gabled attic with a skylight, a storm thunders overhead, and as the story seems to take possession of the pair, the room surrenders to it: Tom Gibbons’ sound effects bolster their mimed actions, and Hugh Vanstone supplies eerie stage lights. That framing helps cover the odd performance weakness: it’s not entirely a directorial choice that the two Brits are more convincing in their own accents in the play-within-a-play. In fact, it’s infinitely easier to believe Dormer as a mystical goddess than as an actual New Yoiker

However, Vanda is a juicy part (it won Nina Arianda a Tony), and Dormer, often cast in vampish roles, gets to send up that image while also titillating in thigh-high dominatrix boots, and tackle both snappy comedy and simmering drama. It's part-empowering, part-discomfiting male gaze writ large. Oakes has the less showy role, but is likewise impressive. He makes Thomas’s delivery of a monologue about Kushemski’s formative sexual experience – involving a birch-wielding aunt and a fur cape – a mesmerising, revealing character moment, and his uptight pedant gradually succumbs to a journey of self-discovery. Charged and provocative.


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