Venus in Fur at Theatre Royal Haymarket
Opening with a thunderbolt, closing with divine intervention, Patrick Marber’s staging of Venus in Fur is a bold, brassy take on David Ives’s S&M romp. Natalie Dormer and David Oakes tear into the sexual politics and sadomasochist trappings of the script with clear relish, and the result is a delicious, if somewhat slight, tryst for the Autumn theatre scene.
In the wake of the horrific slew of allegations surrounding Harvey Weinstein, the premise of an ingénue actress on the casting couch re-enacting scenes of S&M for a leery director feels sickeningly familiar. Lucky, then, that the playwright skirts the icky potential of the premise, gently ribbing the pretensions and delusions of writer-directors with a God complex. Dormer is Vanda, a bawdy, quick-witted young actress, arriving late to read for Thomas Novachek’s (a very game David Oakes) adaptation of Venus in Furs by Sacher-Masoch. Novachek’s central character has a sadomasochist kink – ever since suffering “divine cruelty” at the mercy of his aunt’s birch cane as a child, his sexual appetite is only ever met by equivalent violence at the hands of a lover. The pair needle and chide one another, before rehearsing the play in full – as lines of reality and fiction, consent and resistance, dominance and submission begin to blur. Vonda plays her cards slowly, gradually revealing an expert understanding of the text, and of the master/slave complex.
If the set-up reads as hackneyed, then Ives is well aware of this – Vanda questions the connection between childhood trauma and present-day sexual fetish as trite, and criticises Novachek’s sketching of all female characters who seem to share an impulse towards cruel domination. At times reading as “S&M for beginners” (“Masoch; So that’s where masochism comes from.”), the play-within-the play juggling draws hearty laughs from the audience, before shifting into a more serious study of sexual politics in the second half (though there is no intermission). Dormer and Oakes, sliding deftly between broad American accents and their own cut-glass English, do well with these abrupt, occasionally farcical, transitions.
Indeed, Dormer thrusts a thick, black stiletto through the heart of Ives’s script, chewing the scenery with evident glee. Occasionally, a performer rises so far above a text she elevates it with her – such is Dormer’s accomplishment here. She is a joy to watch, emphasising the piece’s campiest aspects, scrutinising its serious points, wrestling with the text before us. At 90 minutes, the play couldn’t possibly answer all the questions it attempts to pose. Lucky, then, that Dormer and Oakes are simply committed to giving theatregoers a wild ride, as they descend into a bacchanalia of whips, chains, and winks towards the audience. Hail Aphrodite.
Photo: Tristram Kenton
Venus in Fur is at Theatre Royal Haymarket from 6th October until 9th December 2017. Book your tickets here.