Review: Venus in Fur (Theatre Royal Haymarket)

Natalie Dormer and David Oakes star in Patrick Marber’s production of David Ives’ play

'Aren’t you the guy who once said in some interview, "Working in the theatre is the world’s greatest way to get laid?'" David Ives’ black comedy throws out a handful of nicely barbed one-liners over its 90 minute run time. But none are spikier than the lines which echo the sexual exploitation headlines currently out there. This, it must be said, is an astonishing moment to be staging Venus in Fur.

The play is a quasi-fantastical two-hander set in an audition room, which riffs on the 1870 German novella Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (the guy who gave his name to sado-masochism, no-less). In the play, writer and director Thomas has hit the end of a very long day of auditioning for the lead female role in his new work, a stage adaptation of Venus in Furs, but he’s got nowhere. Suddenly, with a flash of lightening and a crash of thunder, appears Vanda Jordan. A fast-talking, blond-haired, leather corset-wearing enigma who looks and sounds like Thomas’s worst nightmare (she’s too young, ‘dressed like a hooker’ – which she thinks is apt for the role – and she’s brought props with her).

But when she reads the lines, having finally convinced Thomas to see her, a transformation happens. She nails it. Her broad Brooklyn accent turns into a delicate English lilt and she oozes poise and femininity. Could she be too good to be true?

With the play adapted from a book, within a play, it all gets very meta. But basically the duo stay all night in the audition room as they both read Thomas’ play together. Thomas reads the male character Severin, who has managed to persuade an aristocratic woman to make him her servant – he does everything she wants – while she treats him like dirt. Art begins to imitate life (or art, again, confusingly) and Vanda seems to be wrapping Thomas round her little finger.

Ultimately, David Ives’ play is faintly ridiculous. Though the sexual positioning of both sides is often upturned, and you’re kept on your toes non-stop as to who has one up on whom, there’s no question on which character the gender clichés rest. It all also feels rather whimsical. Is Vanda a goddess, is she not? Do we really care? Ives is willfully playful and when the final denouement happens, it doesn’t quite land.

Still, there’s no denying that Natalie Dormer is an absolute gem of a performer and it is exceptionally enjoyable watching her jump suddenly from bolshy desperate actress to elegant European with barely a blink. She paces restlessly about the stage, a pent up energy propelling her. When her and David Oakes bat the one liners back and forth it is very fun to watch. Oakes is also excellent, letting Dormer do her thing, but also filling the space with his own calm presence.

There is something quite raw about this piece – which focuses on sexuality, power and control over the opposite sex – being staged right now. And I just can’t ever imagine a woman writing Venus in Fur – Vanda’s character is in her corset for 80 per cent of stage time, for goodness sake. But director Patrick Marber expertly focuses in on the actors, and rightly so. It is a contrived play made all the better by intelligent actors, so that, despite the piece’s flaws, it emerges a taut, engaging evening.

Venus in Fur runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 9 December.