The Theatreguide.London Review
Haymarket Theatre Autumn-Winter 2017
This new play from American David Ives is intriguing, entertaining, suspenseful and thought-provoking through at least half of its unbroken 90 minutes.
And it is strong enough that it can survive turning a little predictable and repetitive, losing some of its power before finally becoming a little silly in its search for an ending.
This is not what Hollywood calls High Concept, and requires some explanation.
Nineteenth-century Austrian novelist Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's book Venus In Fur depicts the sexual aberration that has come to be named after him. His masochistic hero searches for a woman who will not only beat him but subjugate, enslave and humiliate him.
Ives imagines a twenty-first century American dramatist named Thomas, who has adapted Sacher-Masoch's novel for the stage and is auditioning actresses for the key role.
Enter actress Vanda, whose attitude, earthiness and accent declare her working-class Brooklyn. Surprisingly, with Thomas feeding her cues she auditions very well, and what was meant to be a three-page sample extends until they are reading their way through the entire play.
You can predict the rest. As they get caught up in the story their personalities begin to blend with their characters' and it becomes hard to tell from moment to moment whether they're reading the script or speaking their own thoughts.
And at the same time, when they do clearly break from the script – when Vanda's Brooklyn accent comes back – their reactions to the dramatic situation they've been playing make a telling commentary on both Victorian and modern sexual attitudes.
(For example, smarter-than-she-looks Vanda spots how much of her character is just a male erotic fantasy, as much Thomas's as Sacher-Masoch's or the character's.)
What weakens the play a little in the second half is that once we've spotted the dual patterns of blending personalities and clashing historical perspectives, they become less surprising.
We begin to anticipate the moment that Vanda is going to break character for some wry comment or Thomas is going to expose something about his own psychology.
The insights are still good, but we've caught up with the playwright and there is less drama to the historical-psychological ruminations.
And when playwright Ives has to dip a toe into the supernatural for a climax, we just have to be charitable and recognise that he had to do SOMEthing to end the play.
A new play on an odd topic doesn't get produced without TV stars to sell tickets. But, skilfully and sensitively directed by Patrick Marber, Natalie Dormer of Game Of Thrones and David Oakes of Victoria and The Borgias bring a lot more than their fame to their roles.
Dormer shines in the flashier and more openly entertaining part, repeatedly switching instantly between the imperious dominatrix of the script and the ironic no-nonsense actress reacting to the words she's speaking.
But Oakes is equally impressive in the subtler and more challenging task of keeping us repeatedly unsure whether he's speaking as Thomas or his masochistic character (and whether, ultimately, there is a distinction between them).
The learning curve at the start of the play, filling us in on the backstory, situation and characters, may be a steep one. But it pays off with a psychological drama that is for most of its length both fascinating and dramatically engaging.
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