Whether it be on stage or film, often the most resonant pieces of media are those that unintentionally reflect our current position in society.
One such example might be the recent debut of the play Network; adapted from the famous Oscar-winning 1976 film of the same name, and currently playing at the National Theatre. Though the decision to do the play was taken long before the election of President Trump, the play’s portrayal of media and news is all too reminiscent in this era of “fake news”.
And in the same way, while this David Ives play was originally performed in 2010, its West End debut comes at a very opportune time. Being that it’s a story primarily centred about sexual perversity and domination during a casting audition, what could be more timely in this day and age of constant Weinstein-esque revelations?
Writer/director Thomas Novachek (David Oakes) has a problem. After weeks of searching he still can’t find an actress good enough to play the lead in his new play; Venus in Fur, based on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novella Venus in Furs. After an entire day of auditions, he seems resigned to defeat when Vanda Jordan (Natalie Dormer) stumbles into his studio.
Though not on the list, Jordan demands to audition for him. Not convinced, Novachek tries to gently shoo her away, insisting that she is unsuitable for the role. But when seeing her flip effortlessly from streetwise to sophisticated, Novachek’s assumptions are quickly brought into question and a battle between the sexes soon ignites.
The clash of complexity and simpleness is what stands out most in this 90 minute ride of intimate sexuality. On the one hand, set designer Rob Howell keeps this fairly plain. A couch, a table and a couple of scripts are all that is used to portray the battlefield upon which these two actors will engage.
But the atmosphere is brilliantly heightened by stunning uses of lighting and sound. The occasional flicker of lightning, the clash of thunder and the constant changes in light, from the large-scale to the more intimate boudoir, makes the conflict between male and female all too provocative.
And what a conflict! Though a two-hander, it’s obvious that Dormer’s Jordan has the dominant role, both figuratively and literally. Clad in thigh-high dominatrix boots, stockings and a dog-collar, it’s easy to dismiss Jordan as a vapid sex kitten. But it’s soon abundantly clear why Dormer would take the role, as getting to play the whirlwind of emotions and talents that Jordan exhibits must have been all too enticing.
That said, there are moments where you feel a different approach over certain aspects may have been valuable. For example, when Jordan refers to her sexual harassment on the subway as she made her way to the audition; Dormer chooses to present this as a minor titbit, tossed off in a casual manner. It’s hard not to feel that, with so many brave women coming forward with their own similar experiences, perhaps a more serious approach would have been more appropriate.
But it’s a minor issue as you watch her converse with Oakes’ Novachek. Giving as good as he gets, Oakes plays off Dormer with aplomb. Convincingly starting off in a position of strength, his slow loss of confidence and power is both startling and engrossing. Add in his excellent sense of comic timing; and you end up witnessing a relationship that is utterly electrifying.
Alas, like many great beginnings, it all splutters out come the end. While I wouldn’t go as far as to say it was totally unbelievable; the final few minutes, though operatic in scale, do stretch plausibility to breaking-point.
For most of its runtime, Venus in Fur is a powerful exploration of sexuality, energy and lust between two warring factions. Entertaining and hilarious in equal measure, it’s only a shame the end leaves much to be desired.
Venus in Fur ran at the Theatre Royal Haymarket, London from 6th October 2017 – 9th December 2017. Running time was 1 hour and 30 minutes with no interval.
Written by David Ives
Director – Patrick Marber
Set & Costume Designer – Rob Howell
Lighting Designer – Hugh Vanstone
Composer & Sound Designer – Tom Gibbons
Casting Director – Ilene Starger
Vanda Jordan – Natalie Dormer
Thomas Novachek – David Oakes