There surely couldn’t be a better moment to bring to the West End stage a play whose centrepiece is a casting couch. Venus in Fur, David Ives’s play, is based on the Sacher-Masoch novella that would ultimately coin the word “masochism.” But don’t expect a night merely of titillation – well, only corsets and suspenders. This is more a night (actually, a 90-minute two-hander) of plays within plays, role play and reversal and an awful lot of issues.
It begins with the author of a new version of Sacher-Masoch’s book, Thomas (David Oakes – most recently seen as louche Prince Ernest in Victoria). He has been casting all day for a female lead, seeing 30 unsuitable candidates when Vanda (Natalie Dormer, late of Game of Thrones) turns up. She’s not only late, she’s apparently not on his schedule and he instantly dismisses her as unsuitable – the broad Brooklyn accent doesn’t help.
She, however, has other ideas and a couple of costumes to help her out. The first is a PVC basque and suspenders (Vanda explains she thought it was porn). The second is the opulent gown of a nineteenth-century lady. Thomas is mesmerised. He’s also confused. She tells him she doesn’t know his play, then is able to recite it at length – he is now doing the reading with her. She acquires a perfect English accent the moment she puts on the gown. She also seems to know quite a lot about his personal life, including his fiancée Stacey.
Claps of thunder and lightning flashes at the window are the appropriately Gothic comic effects for Vanda’s unlikely revelations. And there is certainly humour, Natalie Dormer switching roles, voices, attitudes, with superb comic timing. Thomas is both unnerved and excited, drawn into a game in which he takes on the role of Severin, Sacher-Masoch’s protagonist. And not just for the read-through. As the play draws to its conclusion, the mood darkens and the confusion of roles and gender deepen until the play has effectively tied itself up in knots.
Venus in Fur has been a huge success on Broadway and it certainly touches on a lot of contemporary themes – feminism, where power lies and how it’s used and abused. The mechanisms for putting these arguments on stage do creak, though. In Patrick Marber’s production, the comic-Gothic overtones are played up with Hammer Horror zeal but are somewhat at odds with the careless contemporary amorality.
Without Natalie Dormer it could all have fallen very flat but she shows real star quality and has no trouble mesmerising both Thomas and the audience. She and Oakes have a strong on-stage chemistry that negotiates its way through the verbose examination of “the issues” that are the real dominant force here. The ending is disappointingly silly.
Venus in Fur at Theatre Royal Haymarket until 6th December 2017. For more information and tickets please visit the website. Feature image by Tristram Kenton, other production images by Darren Bell.