BWW Interview: David Oakes Talks VENUS IN FUR
What was the first play you saw?
My mother was always keen that my sister and I were brought up in a world of theatre, but I think it was when she first took us to the RSC in Stratford that theatre's potency really hit home. We went to see our family friend Tim Davies in Julius Caesar and The Taming of the Shrew. I couldn't have yet been 10 - I love the audacity of being in single digits and being taken to see plays about regicide and sexual domination!
I was sitting there in a T-shirt professing I had "Will Power", watching John Nettles bleed and Josie Lawrence command like all women should. No themes are too bold for a young mind - youth gives us a filter. We sieve theatre for that which we can comprehend and assimilate, and the rest waits for us until we reach our teenage enlightenment.
When did you realise you wanted to pursue acting?
Quite honestly, I'm not sure I do! When I was seven, I played Peter Pan in the primary school play, but my confidence took a knock when I went to show our next door neighbour my costume and she thought I was a fairy - so it wasn't then! I was, and perhaps still am, quite shy.
I guess I started acting when my mother feared I didn't have any friends, and so she enrolled me in a youth theatre. But in a roundabout answer to your question it was when I was nine: I found myself in the chorus of the Salisbury Playhouse pantomime. But it wasn't the acting, or at least not just the acting - it was being a part of something; adults not talking down to you, being part of a collaborative community, making something that hundreds of people relished each evening.
I guess the 14 years that followed this panto all shared that joy of ensemble creation. I have worked on amateur, student and professional shows over the years as a scenic painter, a DSM, a lighting operator, a director, a dramaturg, a producer and other roles as well as an actor. Acting may currently be my dominant creative outlet - but I can't say I see myself doing just that forever.
Where did you train?
I went to university in Manchester before then doing the two-year post-grad at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School. Bristol was wonderful in keeping London ambition at arm's length along the M4 - it helped us focus on gaining skills and collaborating without ego. It very much built upon a growing belief that you're only as strong as the people beside you.
What was your first professional job?
I was selected to do the Sam Wanamaker Festival at the Globe in 2007 prior to my graduation; off the back of that I was asked to be in the Globe's upcoming season in Love's Labour's Lost and We, the People. I was fortunate enough to hit the ground running - I didn't even have an agent at that point.
Love's Labour's Lost was a huge hit and featured four of us freshly out of our respective drama schools - namely, Gemma Arterton, Oona Chaplin and Cush Jumbo - and it's been lovely to see all of our careers flow from that point like river tributaries.
We, the People wasn't perhaps received with as much high praise, but humility is its own reward! We always joked that we would get T-shirts printed with the words "WE THE PEOPLE" above five huge stars! And beneath each star, descending vertically would be name of each newspaper that gave us a one-star review...
You've played an interesting mix of villains and heroes - do you find one easier than the other?
Villains often have more intricate characters I find. Or, at least, certainly on screen that seems to be the case. Often the hero protagonist focuses on expressing the narrative, leaving more joyful characterisation the domain of the villain.
I don't find either easier - but now that I'm starting to deviate more regularly from my roguish past I certainly try to bring the more florid character choices to my good guys. Prince Ernest in Victoria works as a nice example - charming and caddish in equal measure. I don't think people praise him for his better qualities or berate him for his darker side, I think it's his muddy idiosyncrasies that make him enjoyable to watch, and I think the same can be said about Thomas in Venus in Fur.
Similarly, are you more naturally a stage or screen actor?
Both present their challenges. One thing is unfortunately true however - in this world of "celebritised" capitalism, doing screen work enables you to do more exciting stage work. I try to do a play every two years.
What attracted you to Venus in Fur?
Simple - the script. It's chewy. It's dense. It's very, very silly. You have to work at it. It requires head and heart in equal measure. It's a proper actor's piece. A two-hander provides nowhere to hide. Each night with Natalie is a heady dance.
I don't think I speak out of turn, but this is the most fun Natalie and I have ever had on stage. So much of the joy of this experience will be locked in the private collaboration of the two of us, and with [director] Patrick Marber, but that's not to say there isn't a surfeit of sexy frivolity onstage each night for the audience. A two-hander, and one about sadomasochism to boot, is a very personal journey for all involved, on stage or in the auditorium.
Tell us a bit about the play's premise and your character
My character, Thomas, has adapted a novel from 1870 by Leopold Von Sacher Masoch - a fictionalised account of his own experiments in domination and sexual submission. It's from this book, from his name, that we get the term "Masochism".
Thomas, set to direct this play too, has had a fiendish day failing to find his leading lady, and then - knock knock knock - Vanda (Natalie Dormer) enters... Then follows a 90-minute 'audition' of belly laughs, lust, pain, fury and love. And then, once the curtain falls, the play will hopefully continue in your mind, or if you're very lucky, in the bedroom!
Obviously the director/actor relationship is one you know well - from both sides. Have you drawn on any experiences in particular?
I've adapted texts, I've directed and acted too - so, yes, I'm basically just playing myself! Or I'm playing Patrick Marber. The layers of meta-contextuality are a head-fuck! I love it!
Is it alarming or thrilling being on a West End stage with just one other performer?
I've never been happier. I adore Natalie. I don't think either of us have ever felt so safe in another actor's hands - especially with such intimidating and vulnerable source material. When we trip, without fail, the other catches; and there's nothing better than watching her fly when she hits her stride. It's intoxicating.
Are you and Natalie quite similar in your approach? And who's the boss in the rehearsal room?!
When I first met Patrick all those months ago, he said that both me and Natalie were head-actors first, and that the challenge would be to get us to sink it into our bodies. That was the first time I was made aware of the similarities between myself and Nat.
Each day we discover more parallels - it's proving extremely exhilarating and gloriously productive. There's an innate freedom that comes through mutual trust and comprehension that allows one's creative juices to flow. There's no sub and no dom - without the other, it simply wouldn't work.
Has Patrick helped you navigate the play's tone, from comedy to something darker?
Has Patrick Marber helped navigate the tone of a dark sexual comedy?! What do you think - he's the god of this! It's what he put himself on this earth to do! He's the ouroboros of contemporary perverted theatrical comedy!
How do audiences respond to the sexual power play?
Normally the audiences are gloriously young and energised. Normally women flock to stage door to tell Nat and I how empowered the show has made them feel. And one night a couple were left necking in the stalls after everyone else had gone! In this predatory world of doubt, apathy and selfishness, this play is very much a force for good.
What's been the biggest challenge for you with this role?
We don't get to talk. Nat and I spend 90 minutes communicating as Thomas and Vanda (with perhaps a slight glint of Oakes and Dormer from time to time), but we don't get to comment on or indulge in any special moments when they arise. There's no quiet discussion of how it's going tonight as we lean on a mantlepiece at the back of the stage.
With a sparky play that relies on its flexibility and freedom, we are so often confronted with unexpected and glorious idiosyncrasies - each night is a beautiful free-flowing miasma, and we are denied the chance to luxuriously bathe in it. It's flying by and I don't want it to end.
Do you have any dream roles or collaborators for the future?
Nope. Open to suggestions!
Finally, any advice for budding performers?
Become a nurse or a teacher. If not, then a doctor or a human rights lawyer, or perhaps a vet! God, I'd love to be a zoological vet. But, if you suck at sciences, and if you hate bettering other people through selfless patience and compassion - through candour and kindness - then go to drama school and learn from your inevitable and (if you're doing it properly) numerous mistakes.
Photo credit: Darren Bell, Tristram Kenton