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Venus in Fur review at Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London – ‘Natalie Dormer is magnetic’

Natalie Dormer and David Oakes in Venus in Fur at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton Natalie Dormer and David Oakes in Venus in Fur at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

David Ives’ Venus in Fur is as much about power as it is about sex. More precisely it’s about power in the audition room – recent revelations inevitably give it a queasy relevance.

First seen Off-Broadway in 2010, the play is inspired by Venus im Pelz, an 1870 novella by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, known for its exploration of sadomasochism.

Ives’ play isn’t a straightforward adaptation rather a metatheatrical chamber piece on the themes of the novel. On a rain-lashed night, Natalie Dormer’s Vanda shows up late for her audition. Though everyone else has gone home she badgers playwright Thomas into hearing her read. Thomas – who has already established himself as something of a douche by saying things like: “young women can’t play feminine these days. Half are dressed like hookers; half like dykes” – reluctantly agrees.

Though eager to get home to his fiancee, he’s also intrigued by Vanda. She claims to have just skim-read the play, but she knows it inside out, and though she dismisses both the book and by extension the play as being “S&M porn” she seems alert to its emotional complexities and the problems it presents – she also knows a surprising amount about Thomas and his girlfriend.

They run through the dialogue together, with Thomas playing the nobleman, whose aunt-administered whipping as a young man has made him associate pain with desire, and Vanda playing the countess who presents him with a contract of dominance. Gradually the line between them and the parts they are playing becomes unstable. Soon Vanda has Thomas dressed in a footman’s jacket and on his knees, zipping up her thigh-high boots.

Dormer’s performance is one of exceptional poise. 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. Oakes is similarly nimble, though he has less to do.

On the surface Ives’ play appears to subvert the power dynamic between man and woman, director and actor. To get around the book’s thorny ending, Thomas and Vanda switch roles so she never has to submit to him. Instead she gives the orders, she calls out the material for its sexism and she ‘wins’ – but only because she’s the embodiment of a goddess. By making Vanda into this increasingly enigmatic, mystical figure the play dilutes both her  – and its – power.

Patrick Marber’s production is not exactly subtle. Thunder constantly rumbles above Rob Howell’s New York loft apartment set and the whole thing feels like it’s striving to be this smart, playful metatextual exercise while also trying to titillate. It basically wants to have its whip-shaped cake and eat it.

Whether or not she occupies the ‘power spot’ on the stage, Vanda – and by extension Dormer – still spends the majority of the production striding around in a PVC corset and suspenders while Oakes doesn’t so much as undo a shirt button. The real victor in all this is, as ever, the male gaze.

Verdict
Captivatingly performed if superficial meta-theatrical exploration of sadomasochism
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