In a New York loft, director Thomas Novachek (David Oakes) bemoans his difficult day. He is adapting Venus in Furs – the 1870 novel by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – for the stage, and has a creative vision beyond any of the actresses he has spent the day auditioning. How can he be expected to find the woman for the lead role when “half are dressed like hookers, half like dykes”?
Consider me already mildly infuriated. I am certain I am not the only girl who has grown up to resent the way women and their sexuality is presented in media and, from Venus in Furs’ opening lines, I was convinced I had already mapped everything out. Sacher-Masoch’s original essentially tells of a man who enters into a ‘sexual contract’ with a woman, wherein she is the master, he the slave. Crucially, it is only at his demand that this relationship is established; Wanda, his female partner, is reluctant to participate and, by the novel’s close, the roles have been reversed. This, along with the memory of the black and pink posters I’d seen plastered to the wall of the tube, had me envisioning something very stereotypical. A brooding director meets your classic femme fatale actress: sexy, sassy and, most importantly, intriguing. They share an hour and a half of intense sexual chemistry. I get the district line home. Wake up tomorrow and it all begins again.
Enter Vanda (Natalie Dormer) – feisty, brash, and head to toe in black latex. Here comes the first deceptively predictable twist in the narrative – that, despite the dominatrix-esque outfit and broad New York accent, Vanda can actually act. Not only is she an instantly perfect fit for the role (I mean, they even have the same name!), it is slowly revealed that she is a lot more clued up on Sacher-Masoch’s original than she initially lets on. Perfect! As they begin to read the play aloud together, it is clear Thomas has found his sexy, underdog, leading lady. So far, so much as I expected.
Slowly but surely, it becomes clear that this simply is not the case. Anything we think we know about Vanda grows more and more confused as the night progresses. What begins as a sexually charged power play between actress and director becomes a struggle for the audience to pick out what is indeed real, what is acted, who these people we see onstage are and who (if it is indeed a game) is winning.
It is worth mentioning at this point that this play is intense. Two characters, one stage set, no interval (so maybe consider using the toilet before it starts – trust me on that one…). It should also be said that Dormer is fabulous. She executes a Vanda that is at once full of energy and carefully weighted, and who, crucially, plays sexy just at the right moments. Maybe the best way I can put it is that you completely tune out to the fact that she is clad only in black latex… until it becomes relevant again.
Oakes has a tougher job. Although in a lot of respects a simpler role to tackle, Thomas has the difficult task of balancing Vanda out and at times it seems that Oakes is lagging in energy, relying on Dormer to pull the pace of the performance along. At times this seems frustrating but, with hindsight, this is exactly what needs to happen in order for the play to come to it’s unsettling end.
Venus in Fur starts at point A and ends up in a totally different dimension. I will admit I am even more confused by it now than I was when initially stumbled out of the theatre, dazed and stunned. It just goes to show I should not be judging books by covers, as what I so quickly dismissed as a tired cliche turned out to be one of the most thought provoking performances I have seen in a long time. Oh, and it is funny too. Have I even mentioned that it is a comedy? Well, it is. And it is funny. I laughed.
Venus In Fur is showing at The Haymarket Theatre until 9th December.