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Venus in Fur at the Theatre Royal Haymarket – review round-up

Natalie Dormer in Venus in Fur. Photo:
Natalie Dormer in Venus in Fur. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Fergus Morgan
Fergus Morgan is the winner of The Stage Critic Search 2016
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What an awful moment for Venus in Fur to arrive in the West End. With stories of Hollywood's deep-seated misogyny dominating the news, David Ives' titillating two-hander about sexism and sadomasochism on the casting couch saunters into the Theatre Royal Haymarket, where it will remain, boots on, whip in hand, until December.

Ives' play, which premiered to acclaim Off-Broadway in 2010 and was turned into a French film in 2013 by Roman Polanski, is loosely inspired by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's 1870 German novella Venus in Furs. It tells the story of a weary New York theatre director auditioning a brash, mysterious blonde for the lead role in a stage adaptation of Sacher-Masoch's story.

Patrick Marber's 90-minute production boasts a starry cast. Natalie Dormer – Margaery Tyrell in Game of Thrones, Anne Boleyn in The Tudors – plays actor Vanda Jordan, while David Oakes, known for TV roles in The Borgias and Victoria, is writer-director Thomas Novachek. Both actors have stage history too – Oakes was in Declan Donellan's Shakespeare in Love and Deborah Bruce's Pride and Prejudice, and Dormer took the title role of Marber's After Miss Julie at the Young Vic.

But do Dormer and Oakes have the spark to make Ives' sexually charged play sizzle, or does their fire fizzle out? Does Marber's fur-lined masochism make the critics hot under the collar, or leave them out in the cold?

Is Venus in Fur a teasing, titillating treat, or a high-heeled, leather-clad disaster?

Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.

Venus in Fur – pleasure and pain

Natalie Dormer and David Oakes in Venus in Fur. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Natalie Dormer and David Oakes in Venus in Fur. Photo: Tristram Kenton

New York did what it was told and fell in love with Ives' play – it was nominated for a Tony award, and got rave reviews from American critics, the New York Times' Charles Isherwood labelling it "a seriously smart and very funny stage seminar on the destabilising nature of sexual desire". Were London's reviewers similarly impressed?

Most were not, it turns out, Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) labelling the play "a pretty creaky vehicle", Daisy Bowie-Sell (WhatsOnStage, ★★★) finding it "faintly ridiculous" and Dominic Maxwell (Times, ★★) asserting that "there is more pain than pleasure to be had from this two-handed play about sadomasochism, gender politics and being a bit of a misguided male douche bag".

A few critics like it, though. Marianka Swain (The Arts Desk, ★★★★) reckons it's "a satisfying revenge comedy" that offers "a sly examination of gender politics and both theatrical and erotic role-play", while Debbie Gilpin (Broadway World, ★★★★★) finds it a "study of domination and power that's darkly comic and dangerously compelling".

They are in the minority, however. Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★) thinks that "too often it seems silly rather than sexy", Claire Allfree (Metro, ★★) calls it "a weirdly underwhelming show" that, "for all its psychosexual pretensions, is about as dangerously erotic as a Tory party conference", and Lyn Gardner (Guardian, ★★) reasons that "it's never quite the engrossing power struggle it might be".

"The play's uncertainty of tone – veering between comedy, campness and mild erotica – undercuts any serious points it might make about the way sex and power are intimately entwined," she explains. "It’s a mere tease, and one that never strips bare the way some men use sex and power to dominate, control and obliterate women to satisfy their own desires."

Venues in Fur – whiplash girl child

David Oakes in Venus in Fur. Photo: Tristram Kenton
David Oakes in Venus in Fur. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Most critics think Ives' play a bit of a dud, then, but it still provided Nina Arianda with a Tony-worthy role. Is it going to do the same for Dormer here?

Quite possibly, it turns out, with critics falling over themselves to praise her. She is "mesmerising" and "intoxicating" according to Tony Peters (Radio Times, ★★★), "sensational" according to Cavendish, "wonderful" according to Ian Shuttleworth (Financial Times, ★★), and "a stage performer of startling range and charisma" according to Maxwell.

"Dormer’s performance is one of exceptional poise," writes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★). "She’s a magnetic presence, switching from brassy Brooklyn actress to refined European lady in a blink. Her timing is impeccable and she has a strong comic sensibility."

"Dormer unleashes a memorably powerful performance," agrees Alice Saville (Time Out,★★★). "She swaps adeptly between gauche ingenue and the controlled intensity of the dominatrix part she’s reading for."

For Ian Foster (There Ought to Be Clowns), it's "a phenomenal performance from Dormer, whose magnetic stage presence is undeniable throughout the shifting terrain of the play", while for Bowie-Sell, Dormer proves herself "an absolute gem of a performer".

The critics' verdict on Oakes is more varied. Tripney finds him "nimble", Gilpin admires "natural sense of comedy" and Bowie-Sell thinks he's "excellent, letting Dormer do her thing but also filling the space with his own calm presence".

For Gardner, though, he's "bland", for Saville he's "a bit of a sad sack", and for Mountford he's "withdrawn" and "doesn't quite match" Dormer.

Venus in Fur – eyes wide shut

Natalie Dormer and David Oakes in Venus in Fur. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Natalie Dormer and David Oakes in Venus in Fur. Photo: Tristram Kenton

There might be a distracting, leather-clad seductress in heels on stage then, but there's still no escaping the elephant in the room: the awkward timing of Venus in Fur's London premiere, opening with the Harvey Weinstein revelations still rebounding across headlines and through the theatre industry.

For some critics, the outwardly role-reversing content of Ives' play makes this coincidence serendipitous, Allfree acknowledging something "particularly thrilling" about the show as a result, and Gilpin finding the whole thing "fascinating viewing", "one of those magical moments in theatre where every single aspect of the production, even the timing of its run, comes together to make something completely unmissable".

Others, though, see nothing fortunate about the play's arrival right now, particularly considering that its role-reversal is undermined by Marber's production, which is "beautifully staged" according to Maxwell, but "rather stranded on a too-large stage" for Mountford.

"From the moment Vanda arrives dressed in a revealing black corset and bends over offering Thomas an eye-popping glimpse of her bottom, the audience’s gaze is also his gaze – and therefore the male gaze," explains Gardner. "Marber can't resist titillating even as the play appears to question the objectification of women."

"The whole thing feels like it's striving to be this smart, playful metatextual exercise while also trying to titillate," echoes Tripney. "It basically wants to have its whip-shaped cake and eat it."

"All too often," adds Shuttleworth, "Ives' play thinks it is taking women's side in calling out sexual denigration both verbal and physical, but in fact it expresses an ironically, dishearteningly male approach to the issue. As such, it risks doing damage to public discourse at a crucial moment."

"I’m not sure how far Ives is satirising the tired trope of a pervy, controlling male director living out his fantasies on stage," agrees Saville. "It’s hugely funny, silly stuff, stuffed with nonsensical twist after twist, each one soundtracked by a clap of thunder. But a few weeks after the Weinstein revelations, is this really the story that the theatre industry needs? Heavens no."

Venus in Fur – is it any good?

Natalie Dormer in Venus in Fur. Photo: Tristram Kenton
Natalie Dormer in Venus in Fur. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Not really, no. Some critics are entirely smitten with Ives' play, but most call it out as an unhelpful, misguided, male-centric depiction of sexual politics on the casting couch, posing as something entirely different, something witty and wise, smart and sexy.

Dormer puts in a stellar, head-turning performance – Oakes not so much, perhaps – but she's still ultimately the object in Marber's production, despite the play's metatheatrical, role-reversing pretensions. Infer: Venus is one to miss.

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