Thursday, 19 October 2017

Theatre review: Venus in Fur

Patrick Marber’s new project this week sees him direct the British premiere of US hit Venus in Fur, David Ives’ riff on the 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – who gave his name to masochism, largely due to the book and its scandalous reputation. In it Severin, a man who traces back to childhood a desire to be dominated and punished by women, meets a woman he believes can give him what he’s been looking for all his life. She agrees to marry him if he completes a year as her slave to her satisfaction, and produces a contract to that effect; he ends up getting what he asked for but not exactly what he expected. This story becomes the play-within-Ives’ play, in which Thomas (David Oakes) is a New York playwright who’s written an adaptation of the novel he also plans to direct. After a day of disappointing auditions he’s failed to find an actress to play his Venus.

With night drawing in and a storm raging, he’s the last person left in the audition room when one more woman arrives, who’s not on his call sheet but who’s got a copy of the script and seems fully up-to-speed on the job.

Vanda (Natalie Dormer) shares a first name with the play’s heroine but seems wrong for it in every other way, until she convinces Thomas to let her read for the part and transforms. They continue reading through the script long after the audition should have ended, with Thomas acting out Severin and Vanda playing Vanda/Venus. So the action jumps between the play-within-a-play and the characters performing it, Vanda breaking out of character to dig into what motivated Thomas to adapt this particular book for the stage, and how much of Severin he identifies with for real.

It adds an enjoyably meta element to a story that already plays with reality and expectation – as Venus in Fur is in a way an adaptation of Sacher-Masoch’s work itself, then any questions about why Thomas wants to write it are valid for Ives as well. It also serves – intentionally or not – as an example of its very own ultimate message, that any attempt by men to put women in a dominant role eventually ends in trying to subjugate them: Dormer spends most of the play in lingerie, while Oakes stays fully-dressed throughout WHICH HARDLY SEEMS FAIR. The TRH is a huge theatre to fill with a two-hander and mid-level star names, but if the prospect of Natalie Dormer’s furry Venus doesn’t bring in the crowds, the production has serendipitously opened at precisely the time when sexual politics and power relationships in the audition room are all over the news.

There’s an archness to Marber’s production – a vast, oppressive set from Rob Howell, gloomily lit by Hugh Vanstone, with dramatically significant bursts of thunder and lightning – that lends a tongue-in-cheek side to a play that’s already entertainingly cryptic. Vanda is a real gift to Dormer, who switches from Brooklyn bull in a china shop to mysterious European dominatrix and back, sometimes several times in the course of a sentence. She leaves the play open to the possibility that maybe she is the love goddess come to life, in an evening that’s a surprising choice for West End fare, and also surprised me in how much I enjoyed it.

Venus in Fur by David Ives is booking until the 9th of December at the Theatre Royal Haymarket.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Tristram Kenton.

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