Thunder swells, swift blackout. Uproarious applause, house lights come up, people in the rows around them begin to stand. A and B exchange glances as it sweeps to a full standing ovation.
A – Now we have to stand up, otherwise we’ll look like assholes sitting down in the third row.
B – Are critics allowed to stand up? Is that a thing?
A – Just stand up.
B – Okay, but I don’t have my shoes on.
Both stand up. Applause, bows, etc. ‘Venus in Furs’ by The Velvet Underground plays.
A – Oh wowwwww, do you hear that?
B – What?
A – That song choice. I bet no one’s made that connection before.
Theatre empties and A and B flow out with the crowd. They stand outside the theatre. Paparazzi take pictures of a lot of people. But not them.
A – Should I know who these people are?
B – I don’t want to write this review. Thoughts?
A – Loads, actually…
B – That bit about ‘masochism’ is great, by the way – that the term stems from the name of the guy who wrote the original book, Sacher-Masoch?
A – Quite possibly the best line of the night.
B – Yeah, I mean the original Venus in Fur, Masoch’s I mean, has a framing device too: in the book, there’s an unnamed narrator who dreams of meeting Venus (in fur, unsurprisingly). When he confesses these dreams to a friend, the friend gives him a book or something about ‘suprasensual passions’. And that book is the story of Wanda von Dunayev and Severin von Kushemski.
A – Ohhhhh, okay. Like the script is in this adaptation.
B – Yeah, David Ives builds his own framing device, with Wanda as an actress who’s auditioning for the director/writer guy, Thomas.
A – Oof, metatheatricality.
B – (Sighs) I know. But it’s cleverly crafted, and allows for that slick pace and play-within-a-play stuff. Natalie Dormer gets to be both Wanda and Vanda as she recites the play with David Oakes who is both Thomas and Severin. There’s a churning, increasing energy to it, as Oakes realises that Dormer’s Wanda may not be who she says she is.
A – (Pause. More paps. ) Seriously, are any of these people actually famous?
B – Well, Natalie Dormer is.
A – And she really is quite good. It takes a little bit for her to warm up, but she handles the fast-paced, witty dialogue well. She’s strongest when playing Vanda playing…. Wanda. Wait, is that right?
B – But the specifically Jersey accent is a strange choice, given he then asks her where in America she is from?
A – Yeah, that makes no sense. (Pause) David Oakes is also pretty good.
B – Against Dormer he feels deflated. Too wet, or not loathsome enough?
A – Actually, that didn’t bother me. He is just that much more disappointing as both a man and an artist; he pisses me off more like that than if he had been an outright asshole.
B – I see, a more cloaked sort of asshole. She’s the star though, no?
A – Oh, definitely.
B – Now I want ice cream. This always happens once I’m out of the theatre.
A – The steep angles of the set are visually intriguing, a kind of collapsing New York City loft works well for the show.
B – It reflects the uncertainty – or precarity of their situation.
A – You mean like the precarity of a woman in four-inch heels on a stage that raked?
B – And there’s obviously a gothic thing going on here as well. High drama, long shadows, dark and stormy night kind of stuff.
A- But I can’t help thinking that the framing device is still problematic, especially with all this recent discourse about men abusing women, especially through positions of power, particularly in situations like this.
B – Yeah, totally, but those same dynamics are also exactly what Ives wants to explore. So it makes sense what he’s done.
A – Except that it’s set in the entertainment industry, told through the entertainment industry, and given everything that’s going on it just… I don’t know…
B – True. I couldn’t get Harvey Weinstein out of my head, and the #metoo campaign.
A – Right. And Dormer’s casual opening anecdote about being sexually assaulted on the Subway on her way there. Just a regular part of every woman’s day.
B – The severe power imbalance between the characters, especially in a casting situation, makes for a scenario that’s distinctly uncomfortable to watch. It loses any intended levity and humour. Maybe it’s just an unlucky time to put on this show?
A – No, I think it’s a great time to put this play on. It’s high time we started to scrutinize work like this, really examine how progressive (or not) modern male writers and directors think they’re being about gender politics.
B – And what’s the verdict?
A – There are a number of male gazes present in this to dissect. Patrick Marber as director, and Ives, who seems to be trying to interrogate this exact problem.
B – Yeah, but does he? After all that self-referential discourse and scrutiny, in the end doesn’t Dormer’s character simply fulfill the original fantasy of the male narrator in the book?
A – You mean by being a goddess in fur?
B – Exactly. Even though her character is getting retribution or empowering herself at the end, she does not escape the overwhelmingly male-driven and created narrative. And how can she?
A – And not just narrative – vision! It’s not just what she does but how she looks. We can’t pretend that putting a woman – a powerful, famous woman – in a latex corset with thigh-high boots onstage with a fully clothed man doesn’t bring to life a common male fantasy. It all plays into this wet dream of a strong female lead whose power is only attractive and acceptable because in reality she has none.
B – And do you think the play is aware of this?
A – Yes, but not to its fullest extent. At its core, Venus in Fur tries to interrogate the push and pull of male/female power dynamics, but it’s always through a male perspective. I mean, for God’s sake, even the painting of ‘Venus in Fur’ that opens the show is BY A MAN! None of these images of women are created for women.
B – And that limits its scope. It considers its own bias, but doesn’t go so far as to deconstruct it. There’s a lack of a female authorial voice in the room.
A – And you can feel that.
B – Maybe I should just make this conversation my review, huh?
A – I mean, at least you’d have a woman’s voice.
Adelaide is a theatre director and Brendan is a freelance theatre critic. They are collaborators and theatre-makers.
Venus in Fur is on until 9 December 2017 at the Theatre Royal Haymarket. Click here for more details.