There could scarcely be a better time for a West End production of David Ives’ Venus In Fur than now when Harvey Weinstein’s sexual power games are everywhere in the Press. But timeliness aside, this production, directed by Patrick Marber, is a sizzling sensation, fuelled by two remarkably good performances and full of literary and theatrical joy.
There is a lot in play in Venus In Fur. Echoes of a Titian masterpiece. The insights into masochism first chronicled by Richard von Krafft-Ebing. Complex notions surrounding the casting couch as a step in theatrical careers. The idea of who has power in a room and why. Playwright David Ives whips these ingredients hard, and the result is dazzling, acerbic, brilliant and genuinely funny.
When the play debuted on Broadway in 2012, it starred Nina Ariadna and Hugh Dancy, and most of the critical attention focussed on Ariadna’s highly charged performance which went on to secure her a Tony Award. Both Dancy and the play were lost in the wake of Ariadna’s performance.
Now playing at the Theatre Royal Haymarket is Patrick Marber’s premiere production of Ives’ play and, for my money, it is superior in every way to Walter Bobbie’s Broadway outing. This production grabs you by the threat from the very start and never let’s go, permitting laughter, shock and unceasing joy along the way.
The two leads, perhaps both best known for Televison roles, are superb, utterly and exactly right for their demanding roles. Most critically, though, they are a perfect match for each other, each capable of surprising, of subverting expectations and shattering perceptions.
David Oakes, so beguiling in a supporting role in Shakespeare In Love, steps up effortlessly to co-lead. Handsome, erudite and fascinating, Oakes makes Writer/Director Thomas a wholly believable and completely flawed modern man of the theatre. His ability to revel in the language Ives has written adds a gloss of glamour to his affable persona, a mercurial and slightly whimsical edge which underlines his complex grasp of the character.
Oakes’ ability to act, to make intelligent choices which enlighten and improve the text serves the material well. He never rests, always seeking to make the dialogue absorbing, understandable and exciting. Marber’s slick, insightful style brings out the best in Oakes, and sharpens the entire experience.
All this would be pointless if the actor playing Vanda, the late auditionee whose raw/practised skill overwhelms and then subdues Oakes’ character, were not equal to the task. But, make no mistake, Natalie Dormer is absolutely up to the task. Without question, she makes more of an impact here than Adriana did on Broadway.
Leaving well behind her the impression given by her roles in Game Of Thrones and The Tudors, Dormer is startlingly, but effortlessly, wonderful in this role, a role that requires her to spin on the eye of a needle and surprise constantly. Her switches between accents, styles and temperament were faultless, her command of the stage absolute, and her dizzying splendour and perfect contrast with Oakes exactly what was needed to mine the text properly.
Like a see-sawing couple, Dormer and Oakes are perfectly matched, each bringing out the lustre, the opportunity in the other. It’s a refined delicate balance which pays off richly and rewardingly. Each gives the other opportunity, ground and support – and bothnfly higher as a result of these selfless, entwined and enticing characterisations.
It is glorious, quite glorious, to see these two stars shine in Marber’s production.
Rob Howell’s brooding set and excellent costumes add an artistic flair to the production, heightening the theatrical overtones. Hugh Vanstone uses light to accentuate the drama, as well as the comedy, and Tom Gibbons’ original music perfectly frames proceedings.
This is the kind of production for which the West End was once rightly known. A thrilling production of a new play, launching or improving the theatrical careers of all involved. A play with humour and insight, one that touches a raw nerve and makes you feel glad to be alive.