BWW Review: VENUS IN FUR, Theatre Royal Haymarket

BWW Review: VENUS IN FUR, Theatre Royal HaymarketDavid Ives's two-hander was first performed seven years ago Off-Broadway, before heading to Broadway and subsequently running in theatres around the world and being adapted to film by Polanski. Venus in Fur now has its West End premiere at Theatre Royal Haymarket, directed by Patrick Marber and starring Natalie Dormer and David Oakes.

BWW Review: VENUS IN FUR, Theatre Royal HaymarketWriter/director Thomas Novachek has spent all day trying to cast the lead role in his stage version of the novel Venus in Furs, but can't quite find the right fit. Just as he's about to leave for dinner with his fiancée, Vanda Jordan arrives, claiming she was due for an audition earlier that afternoon but has been stuck on the subway.

She appears completely unsuitable (especially for the very particular Novachek), but convinces him to at least read a few pages with her - before long, they're playing out entire scenes, Vanda seemingly perfect for the part. As the power balance starts to shift, will Novachek be able to resist...?

This production has, inadvertently, come along at just the right time. With allegations against Harvey Weinstein continuing to surface, and other industries scrambling to avoid controversies of their own, an intimate look at a potential casting couch scenario makes for fascinating viewing.

Of course, you don't need to have this at the back of your mind; it is an excellent piece of writing whose simple concept is made more complex thanks to the play-within-a-play idea, and intrigues further as the characters switch roles. It is a study of domination and power that's darkly comic and dangerously compelling.

Visually, the production is absolutely stunning. Rob Howell's set - an old-looking studio - is incredibly evocative, with a simple but effective layout. The lighting design from Hugh Vanstone really comes into its own as the two characters start their wrestle for power; they begin playing out the scenes to a basic set-up, left over from the earlier auditions, which then moves with the moods of the piece. It truly enhances the play's climax.

David Oakes makes a welcome return to the London stage; last seen on the West End in The Trial of Macbeth and Shakespeare in Love (both at the Noël Coward Theatre), he has most recently featured in ITV's Victoria (indeed, there's a tantalising glimpse of Prince Ernest partway through the play).

Oakes easily demonstrates Novachek's initial control of the situation, coupled with tiredness and exasperation, which subtly morphs into his being dominated as his curiosity gets the better of him. He also has a natural sense of comedy which he uses to great effect - a particular highlight for me comes early on, as Novachek bemoans the lack of maturity in many young women now (with a hilariously and scarily accurate voice).

Natalie Dormer will be familiar to many thanks to her screen work, including two of the Hunger Games films, The Tudors, Silk and Game of Thrones, as her last stage role was five years ago in After Miss Julie at the Young Vic. This impressive list of credits shows Dormer's dramatic pedigree, so it may come as something of a shock with Venus in Fur to discover how exceptionally funny she is. Her demeanour provides some great physical comedy, and every punchline is hit with pinpoint accuracy.

Dormer is also brilliant at quickly switching between Vanda's broad New York accent and her character's RP voice. Her chemistry with co-star Oakes is electric, and before long they have seduced the entire audience; the pair are real naturals on stage.

With a 90-minute running time, the play flies by - it's gripping from start to finish, and is one that will make you think, gasp and laugh out loud. It is one of those magical moments in theatre where every single aspect of the production, even the timing of its run, come together to make something completely unmissable.

Venus in Fur is at the Theatre Royal Haymarket until 9 December

Picture credit: Darren Bell

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From This Author Debbie Gilpin

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