Given the week the entertainment industry has had, a play about sex, abuse and power was always going to feel relevant. But while David Ives’ Venus in Fur is an entertaining play with a stellar performance at its core, it never really manages to fully get its message across.
We meet Vanda (Natalie Dormer) as she announces herself in the audition room of playwright-director Thomas (David Oakes), who has just spent the day struggling to find the lead for his latest play, Venus in Fur. She’s hours late, and appears unannounced at the back of his studio, but after persuading the initially reluctant playwright to hear her read, it quickly becomes apparent that this loud Boston actress is perfect for the role, to the surprise of Thomas and the audience.
Thomas and Vanda read lines from the fictional Venus in Fur play, which Vanda sees as S&M porn, but is really about power and gender. After the week Hollywood has had, it throws up some pertinent points about power, even if it is a bit too head-on, with talk of Fifty Shades-style slave contracts. Oakes’ arguably strongest moment is when reading a speech from the script about the abuse his character experienced as a child at the hand of his aunt, which seems to have spurred playwright Thomas to adapt the work.
The performances are pretty spot-on, but Dormer especially so. While it takes a while for Oakes to hit his stride in this play, Dormer is always switched on, switching effortlessly from powerful to subdued, to seductive. She’s quite commanding of the stage, on a level Oakes never quite manages to match.
The problem with Venus in Fur is that we get the points David Ives is trying to make about power, especially in the entertainment industry: Vanda talks of being turned down from roles for being “too big, too small, too old, or too young”; Thomas talks of getting into the industry because it’s “easy to get laid”. (It’s all quite meta, which is quite enjoyable at times.) But it poses a problem as it’s also quite contradictory: Vanda saunters around the stage in a corset which seduces Thomas from the off, but it doesn't really seem to serve a particular purpose. There's no point to it, it's just to make it all seem a bit sexy, really.
Played out on Rob Howell’s great, dingy set in a Broadway attic, Patrick Marber’s direction builds over the 90-minute run time, culminating in a fantastically dramatic final few minutes. Hugh Vanstone’s subtle lighting is used to great effect, but I couldn’t get over the cheesy moments of lightning strikes that were meant to be happening outside. They seemed a bit pointless, and were so crong-inducing it removes you from the action.
What the press said...
"Dormer goes at this at full tilt, giving a confident, sensuous and intriguing performance. Oakes is more withdrawn and doesn’t quite match her, which doesn’t help the production dynamic." - Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard (three stars)
"A pretty creaky vehicle, then, but with a leading lady to die for cracking the whip. Worth a peek." - Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph (three stars)
"Game of Thrones star Natalie Dormer is dominant in every way in this tricksy, mildly entertaining two-hander written by David Ives, in which 21st-century sexual politics meet 19th-century S&M." - Lyn Gardner, The Guardian (two stars)
Venus in Fur Tickets are available now.