Theatre Royal Haymarket, London – until 9 December 2017
Whether you’re talking about Venus In Fur, the hottest, most electrifying two-hander to scorch across a West End stage in a long time, or a fictitious planned Broadway production of Venus in Fur or, indeed the original, Venus In Furs, this show is both and then some.
David Ives’ Venus In Fur opened on Tuesday night at the Theatre Royal Haymarket and a 50 Shades reaction rippled through the audience. Natalie Dormer and David Oakes engage in the sort of verbal foreplay that would make granny blush. It’s not always what they say but how they say it, every word of Ives’ dialogue dripping with eroticism and subtext.
This play-within-a-play straddles respectability and licentiousness, constantly suggesting more than it actually delivers. It’s a huge tease with the actors sparking off to each other with one provocative line after another.
Here we have a brash, outspoken and sexy blonde auditioning for a role in a play and she’s prepared to do anything to get the part – at a time when we’re seeing actresses on both sides of the pond accusing a certain film director of using the casting couch.
Oakes plays writer and director Thomas Novachek, who, like Ives, has adapted Leopold von Aacher-Masoch’s 1870 book, Venus In Furs, for the New York stage. But he is finding it impossible to find his leading lady for the two-hander after a day of auditions.
“Young women can’t play feminine these days,” he phones to tell his girlfriend. “Half dress like hookers and the other half like dykes.” He’s frustrated, standing in his office, an industrial loft, about to go home after a fruitless day. There’s a storm blowing, rain is lashing the skylight and thunder is cracking overhead.
The lights go out for a second and, when they return, a breathless woman (Dormer) is standing in the room wearing a trench-coat and purple hat. She starts gabbling apologies about being late for the auditions, being felt up on the subway, negotiating the perverts, yada, yada. One excuse after another.
Every other word is an expletive in her broad Bronx or Queens accent but this ballsy, assertive and determined woman refuses to go until Novachek sees her audition.
He is overwhelmed, astonished and browbeaten into agreeing and is coerced by her into reading the part of the man, Severin von Kushemski, while she auditions for the woman, Wanda.
She throws off the coat to reveal a black basque, stockings and studded dog collar, not quite the right dress for 1870 melodrama. But, never fear, she has come prepared with a bag of period clothing.
She’s totally unabashed and it soon becomes clear that she has far more insight into the play than an auditioning actress has any right to have.
Thomas is appalled at her analysis of his play. He says it is a love story, albeit about a masochistic relationship where the male character begs to be dominated and subjugated by the woman he worships. She sees only sexual abuse and violence.
The dynamic reading makes sparks fly and pretty soon he is entranced and mesmerised by the exuberant woman acting before him.
At one point she pushes him into a frock coat – and the voice, she suggests – perhaps played with a bit of a Germanic accent? – and we all get the in-joke referring to his role as the syphilitic Prince Ernest from ITV’s Victoria.
The distinction between Thomas and Vanda, and Severin and Wanda, becomes more blurred as the audition progresses. She thrashes him with an imaginary birch and draws up a slave contract as Kushemski’s demands becomes increasingly fervid.
Severin pleads, on his knees: “There can be nothing more sensuous than pain or more pleasurable than degradation.”
But who is the slave and who the master? Has Novachek written nothing more than cheap titillation that exploits women or is it a story of love and devotion? And exactly who is this extraordinary young woman auditioning before him?
Oozing sensuality and promise Venus In Fur – Ives scintillating version rather than Novachek’s – is 90-minutes of dark desire and pure pleasure with both Dormer and Oakes exuding chemistry and allure. I hung on every word and you will too.
Venus In Fur (no real fur is used throughout the production) runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until December 9.
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