Venus, Aphrodite, or the Goddess of Love. ‘Love’ was a loosely applied term in Ancient Greece, one that could often have been replaced with lust; all-consuming and passionate, but lust nonetheless.
I would suggest lust is the currency we’re dealing in with Venus in Fur, written by David Ives and based on the erotic-romantic novella of the same name by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch – with masochism being the derivative of his surname. Over one evening, Thomas Novachek, a writer and director, tries and fails to find anyone good enough to be his leading lady. ‘There are no attractive women’ he claims tellingly, and somewhat ironically, while on the phone to his fiancé. Enter Vanda, played by the sizzling Natalie Dormer.
Novachek, played by an assured David Oakes, assumes the role of a controlling director easily; he is impatient, judgemental and just the right level of aware of his own attractiveness to be confident in his place in the world. He expostulates loudly on the death of attractiveness and femininity in young women. To Novachek of course, attractiveness stems from the killer combination of vixen looks, a classic, enunciated accent, and a bold and highly intelligent mind, with just a hint of something…. extra.
Novachek is dismissive of Vanda when he thinks her simply a sexy, brash, young actress with a thick New York accent. His interest in her is fed by her portrayal of the other Vanda, the Vanda he created. It’s a self-indulgent interest which develops into an obsession with the way she makes him feel, and what she is able to reveal in him.
Ives takes the strange contradictions of human fallibility, jealousy, and superficiality and the conviction that comes from raw power and places it in a neat package in the form of Vanda. Dormer is in utter control of Vanda, fluently switching from ditzy actress to accidental temptress, to the classic vixen we have come to associate with Dormer.
Ives writes about power masquerading as love and the struggle of the sexes, only he doesn’t write it like it’s a battle, he writes it as though men have won. And maybe they have. Ostensibly both Vandas are strong women, making their own choices and taking control of their sexuality. The fun, present-day Vanda refuses to leave his quarters without an audition and plays on the traditional actor/director dynamic by constantly questioning the motives in Thomas’s writing.
However, looking closer at the play we realise from the very moment Vanda sheds her trench coat and reveals her eye-popping dominatrix garb, we see her through Novachek’s eyes, the fur-lined, scopophilic male gaze, the magnificent goddess reduced to a sex symbol.
The play is a clever back and forth, a maze of glib linguistic phrases and self-professed intellectual speeches. The gender swapping is actually very plausible and the seamless swaps in accent are a dizzying joy. Dormer is jaw-droppingly striking as well as reliably fabulous and Oakes does as much as he can with an otherwise one-dimensional character. However in the light of the Weinstein allegations and ‘casting couch’ revelations, I can’t help but feel we never quite touch any subject with poignancy. The show plays off audience reactions to instant visual stimuli; provocative dress, erotic tension, casually spoken witticisms. Strip this play bare, and I’m not sure we’d find it was wearing a whole lot underneath.
Venus In Fur is playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 9th December. For more information and tickets, see www.trh.co.uk/whatson/venus-in-fur/