26.09.2021

BAZ BAMIGBOYE: Natalie Dormer plays a dish called Vanda

Natalie Dormer strides into a rehearsal room in stiletto heels, kicks them off and proceeds to transform herself into… a dominatrix.

It’s one of several guises Dormer assumes when she performs scenes from David Ives’s scorching play Venus In Fur.

For 20 minutes, I’m transfixed as I watch the actress deliver a comic tour de force.

Natalie Dormer plays Vanda Jordan, a domineering actress who runs rings around a stage director named Thomas after he wrongly pegs her as a dumb blonde

First, she plays a seemingly scatty, bag-lady of a Bronx actress called Vanda Jordan, who elbows her way into an audition.

Then she’s in a dress, playing the cut-glass accented object of desire of an aristocrat.

And then she’s off again, channelling Marlene Dietrich for a couple of seconds before finally settling on to a chaise longue and arranging her legs in various suggestive poses, in order to enslave the man who desires to be dominated by her.

Ives’s intense exploration of forbidden sex was a hit on Broadway several seasons ago. It starred Nina Arianda as Vanda and Hugh Dancy as Thomas, the contemporary stage director who has adapted Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 19th-century novel Venus In Furs.

Thomas is then forced to play out the sadomasochistic games within the piece by Vanda from the Bronx, as she assumes the various female roles.

The new production, which runs at the Theatre Royal Haymarket from October 6, is being directed by playwright Patrick Marber, who worked with Dormer when she starred in his play After Miss Julie at the Young Vic five years ago – the last time she trod the boards. David Oakes will play Thomas.

Marber offers upmarket Jelly Babies all round and then asks his cast of two: ‘Shall we get on with it?’

The play offers a beautiful commentary on the battle of the sexes.

For starters, when Vanda waltzes into the rehearsal room and opens her mouth, Thomas (the director) immediately assumes she’s a dumb blonde.

‘He has made a judgment on her in the first 30 seconds,’ says Dormer, who adds that Vanda is no dummy, and is soon running rings around Thomas.

David Oakes (left) will play Thomas, while the play will be directed by Patrick Marber (right), who worked with Dormer the last time she trod the boards, five years ago

David Oakes (left) will play Thomas, while the play will be directed by Patrick Marber (right), who worked with Dormer the last time she trod the boards, five years ago

There must be more than a few folk who have underestimated Dormer herself, over the years.

The actress reckons there are going to be some fascinating conversations in the bar after audiences have seen the play. 

‘Someone’s going to say something in it was really sexist,’ she says. ‘And someone else is going to disagree with that – and there will be comments about what I wear.

‘Thomas is this cerebral young director – well informed, politically aware. But at the end of the day, we’re exploring a guy whose sexual penchant is that he’s attracted to this theme of submission and domination.’

Dormer’s career is studded by an array of disparate characters, from savvy Queen Margaery Tyrell in Game Of Thrones to rebel Cressida in The Hunger Games to Lady Worsley in The Scandalous Lady W – a woman who was, as she points out, owned by her husband.

‘You’ve got this great juxtaposition in Venus In Fur, where Vanda is this sassy, emancipated woman who is then playing a character from a novel in 1870 who’s not allowed to be financially or emotionally independent.’

Not long ago, Natalie visited Tanzania with a charity that was helping to end child marriage.

‘I was talking to young girls who are still the property of their fathers or their husbands. We can’t go backwards and give away what we’ve won.’

Dormer relishes the opportunity to play a confident, emancipated woman – and is particularly interested in the conversations people will have after seeing the play

I mentioned comments Dawn French made recently about her disappointment at the behaviour of some young women who go out and roll about drunk in the gutter. Is this what we battled to get the vote for, she lamented.

‘I think our mothers and grandmothers and great-grandmothers fought to give us choice,’ Natalie counters. ‘I think you can be Vanda Jordan and walk in wearing a patent leather corset, if that is what you have chosen.

‘Equally, you can burn your bra and not shave and do nothing but wear flats. It’s your choice. The empowerment is in the choice you made, and not that you felt compelled, by peer pressure, legality – or men.’I remember meeting Dormer at the beginning of her career 14 years ago and I like the way she has made it on her own terms.

It’s her choice whether she plays a sexy character, or a strait-laced headmistress, as in the forthcoming television adaptation of Joan Lindsay’s novel Picnic At Hanging Rock.

Even so, I make my excuses and leave… before Vanda gets out her whip.

Getting the balance right

Marcus Brigstocke – one of my favourite broadcasters – is trying to stretch himself, one foot at a time.

Brigstocke has been cast to play famed American showman PT Barnum in a rare London revival of the Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart musical Barnum.

One of the show’s most famous songs is There’s A Sucker Born Ev’ry Minute; and I wondered if Brigstocke had taken that number to heart.

Marcus Brigstocke will play American showman PT Barnum in Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart's musical Barnum

Brigstocke alongside Laura Pitt Pulford

Marcus Brigstocke will play American showman PT Barnum in Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart’s musical Barnum, alongside Laura Pitt Pulford

He laughed. ‘I’ve always tried to stretch myself and do new things and accept new challenges,’ he said, diplomatically.

The show famously features a big top with a tightrope (though quite how that will fit into the tiny Menier Chocolate Factory Theatre, near London Bridge, where it runs from November 18, remains to be seen).

To get ready for his role, Brigstocke has rigged a high wire – or rather a low wire – in the lounge of his south London home.

‘The furniture has been pushed aside and I have to be really careful when I fall off, not to fall on any number of things. It’s high enough to practise on and it’s fascinating, the process,’ he told me. 

‘You feel like security is two feet on the wire. But actually, it’s much more stable with only one foot on the wire, and the other out in the air, for balance.’

Michael Crawford

Jim Dale

Michael Crawford (left) and Jim Dale (right) who have both performed in Barnum in the past

Director Gordon Greenberg and Mark Bramble, who wrote the show’s book, have worked on tightening the text and bringing more focus to Barnum’s marriage.

Laura Pitt-Pulford will play the circus master’s wife, Charity, who has to perform some juggling tricks in the show. ‘I might have to invest in some oranges for practice,’ she joked.

The actress took a little break from musicals to do some ‘straight’ acting: in Platinum at the Hampstead and a tour of Nell Gwynn. 

‘It gave the voice a rest,’ she said. (Before that she had done a run of back-to-back musicals including Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, The Smallest Show On Earth, Oliver, Flowers For Mrs Harris and Side Show.)

Pitt-Pulford has also been filming the drama Free Rein for Netflix.

Barnum features Celinde Schoenmaker as Jenny Lind; Tupele Dorgu and Harry Francis have also been cast. 

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