Robert Tanitch reviews Venus in Fur at Theatre Royal Haymarket, London SW1
The first thing you see when you enter the auditorium is a drop-curtain which features Titian’s Venus with a Mirror. The reproduction of the painting fills the entire proscenium arch.
You know, if you didn’t already know, that you are in for an erotic evening.
Venus in Furs is a cult novella written by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch in 1870 and has been filmed many times. “A woman in furs is nothing more than a large cat, a charged electric battery.”
A dilettante poet persuades his mistress to be a dominatrix and he pretends to be her servant. On their train journeys she always travels first class. He always travels third class.
When he was a little boy his aunt had regularly birched his naked bottom whilst two servants held him down on a fur coat.
The term masochism was coined by psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in 1890.
David Ives’s play, a two-hander, directed by Patrick Marber, opens with a clap of thunder and claps of thunder regularly punctuate the action as if we are watching a Horror movie.
A playwright-director, who has been auditioning actresses to play the role of the 19th century dominatrix in his stage adaptation of the novel, is having difficulty finding the right actress for the role.
An actress arrives too late but she persuades him to let her audition. She throws off her coat to reveal she is dressed in a PVC black corset. She already knows the text by heart. She’s read the book which she dismisses as S&M porn. She has brought her own 19th century costume.
Venus in Fur is a bravura showcase for Natalie Dormer and David Oakes; one minute they are playing actress and director, the next they are playing the 19th century characters.
You may have seen Dormer in Game of Thrones or on stage in Patrick Marber’s After Miss Julie. Her performance here, physically and verbally, is amazingly varied, comic and sexy. She instantly raises the emotional and sexual power stakes. You are never in any doubt that she has the whip-hand but the play doesn’t go anywhere.
With an infamous Hollywood producer’s scandal much in the news, audiences might expect Venus in Fur to get really erotic and really nasty. It doesn’t.