Venus In Fur – Theatre Royal Haymarket until 9th December
Review By Franco Milazzo
In a swanky London theatre probably more suited to an M&S crowd, Venus In Furs seems an odd choice for a plot which evocatively explores the very origins of S&M.
Directed by Closer writer Patrick Marber, we first meet Vanda Jordan (Natalie Dormer) arriving for an audition with Thomas Novachek (David Oakes) in his New York loft apartment. He is looking for an actress to star in his adaptation of the 1870 novel Venus In Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the same novel that inspired the term “masochism”. Jordan doesn’t have an appointment yet she has more than a passing knowledge of the source material, has brought along some suitable costumes for them both and a well-thumbed copy of Novachek’s own script…
At this stage, we would expect Novachek, like most vaguely astute people with any sense of self-preservation, to be running for the door, a taxi and somewhere safe. As the cases of notable scrotes from Jimmy Saville to Weinstein have shown, many humans who appear creepy usually have an agenda which benefits themselves to the extreme detriment of others. One wonders: if the genders in this play were reversed would this play about sex, dishonesty and betrayal be so readily acceptable in the current climate? Apropos of nothing, a film version of Venus In Fur was directed in 2012 by Roman Polanski.
With the appointments of Marber and Dormer, there’s stunt-casting on and off stage; in both cases, it looks pretty obvious that neither had to have their arms twisted. They very likely both picked this production for personal reasons and maybe to prove a point to those looking to hire them in the future.
Escape from typecasting?
Dormer will be glad to shake off her the reputation as a perma-princess gained from her multi-season roles as Game Of Thrones’ Margaery Tyrell, The Tudor’s Anne Boleyn and The Hunger Game’s . She will know well that typecasting has killed off the careers of bigger stars than her. As Vanda, she makes a wisecrack about not feeling comfortable in period dress but, here again, Dormer takes on the mantle of a woman who (slight spoiler) successfully manipulates a man to her ends using their fatal flaws against them.
Even if she was driven on stage in a horse-drawn carriage carrying the play’s name along the side, this production couldn’t be a more obvious vehicle for Dormer. Her sharp acting rises above the predictable and mediocre material and she is highly hypnotic in her role but, when there are only two people on a darkly lit stage with more quick-fire to-me-to-you-style banter than a Chuckle Brothers convention, even that epitome of dourness Gordon Brown would be hypnotic. Opposite her, Oakes makes for an attractive and able sidekick whose intense and believable portrayal of Novachek gives the play some well-needed dramatic ballast even when things get decidedly silly towards the end.
For his part, Marber not-so-subtly speaks through Novachek, a man who is defiant about wanting to both direct and adapt his masterpiece as he does not want to see it mauled by the hands of others; he also professes not to have the greatest confidence as an actor. As someone who started out as a comedian on the live circuit and on TV, Marber is best known for his work off stage: his artistic apex arguably came (and went) with 1997’s Closer, a play about sex, dishonesty and betrayal which was directed on stage to award-winning effect by the writer himself and eventually transferred from London to Broadway and, later, Hollywood.
When the film version was released in 2004, Mike Nicholls was at the helm and, while the veteran auteur’s take on Closer was generally well-received by the public and picked up a few prizes for the actors, the silver screen adaptation attracted some vicious opprobrium from critics: The New York Times described it as a film that “collapses into a welter of misplaced intensity” while The Atlantic labelled it “flamboyantly bad” and “irretrievably silly”. Quite what that kind of experience does to a man’s psyche is unknown; it wouldn’t be untoward to suggest that perhaps Marber is using Novachek as a sock puppet for his own feelings around how his most acclaimed work was handled on its way to the silver screen.
Marber’s engaging direction, despite the shlock-horror use of lightning effects, makes sure that our eyes are glued to the stage but can’t gloss over the gaping plot holes or the leaps of faith required, especially in the final third.