Theatre Royal Haymarket, London – until 9 December 2017
“It’s a serious novel. It’s a central text of world literature.’Basically it’s S&M porn'”… What a charged moment for Venus in Fur to open into. As the fallout from the Harvey Weinstein revelations continues to reverberate around social media and perhaps even society at large, a play about the sexual dynamic between an actress and a director and the erotic power play that emerges out of her audition feels…challenging. Intriguingly written, thought-provokingly staged and superbly acted, it nevertheless left something niggling at me.
David Ives‘ play was extremely well received off- and on-Broadway at the beginning of this decade and it has a tricksy cleverness to its meta-textual construction and surfeit of theatrical in-jokes. A brash young playwright has spent a long day auditioning for his adaptation of Venus in Furs, an 1869 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who literally put the masochism in S&M. Arriving late and swearing like a trooper, Vanda pleads for the chance to be heard but as an eventual audition becomes a read-through, little is as it seems.
In Natalie Dormer and David Oakes‘ hands, directed by Patrick Marber, the continual fluctuations in the relationship between actor and director, man and woman, sub and dom, are gripping throughout. To give any details is to risk spoilers and if possible, I’d go in knowing as little as possible. That said, I don’t think it is saying too much to acknowledge a phenomenal performance from Dormer whose magnetic stage presence is undeniable throughout the shifting terrain of the play.
Rob Howell’s angular set design uses the depth of the Haymarket’s stage most effectively and lit dramatically by Hugh Vanstone and dressed by Tom Gibbons’ atmospheric sound design, creatively it really does the job. And you can’t deny the sharpness and cleverness of the writing which at times is bitingly funny. But given the stories that are now being aired, the treatments being revealed, does it go far enough to not be part of the problem itself?
Do power shifts really have to happen in lingerie? I freely admit to not knowing the answer to this but I also feel it is important to acknowledge that these questions exist and cannot, should not, be ignored.