It isn’t hard to see why David Ives’ Venus in Fur, which plays until Saturday at the Centaur, is so popular with audiences. As I wrote in my review: “It’s got just the right aggregate of transgressively sexy shades, laugh-out-loud one-liners, knowingly glib sexual politics, and richly theatrical smartness to satisfy most tastes.” But it’s also a massive hit with theatre managements, and that isn’t difficult to work out either.
With a cast of just two – one half belonging to that gender which, records show, is more likely to buy theatre tickets and drag their male partners in tow – it makes perfect economic sense in these straitened times. The wonder is why playwrights aren’t churning out more of these male-female two-handers, because when they hit, they hit big.
Below are just five examples that have hit particularly big as they negotiate the thorny thickets of sexual politics and save on cast salaries. There are lots more of them out there – I’m sure you can think of others and might possibly substitute your own examples for one or two on my list. Some might even have been written by women, an admittedly glaring omission from my own list. All I can say in my defense is that in most of these, as in Venus in Fur, the women have all best lines and ultimately stick it to their ostensibly more powerful partners by curtain’s fall.
Willy Russell’s phenomenally successful 1980 play centres on a working class hairdresser tentatively entering the groves of academia, with sozzled professor Frank as her guide, mentor, and finally intellectual inferior.
Famously turned into an opened-out film with Julie Walters and Michael Caine in 1983, the original stage play simply had Rita and Frank bantering and bickering back and forth across a book-cluttered study.
At one point, the increasingly resentful Frank compares himself to Doctor Frankenstein and Rita to the creation who ultimately turns against him. Rita could so easily have become Russell’s own Frankenstein’s monster, a runaway juggernaut making any further effort on Russell’s part futile. But then he went and halved Rita’s cast size with Shirley Valentine and doubled his punter-pulling clout.
Strictly speaking, David Harrower’s 2005 play isn’t a two-hander, given the last minute appearance of a silent third character. But for most of its 90 minute running-time, it’s a blistering, morally vertiginous duel between a middle-aged man and the young woman with whom he had a sexual relationship when she was twelve.
Its West End premiere featured powerhouse performances from Roger Allam as the remorseful but evasive Ray and Jodhi May as the damaged, possibly vengeful Una. It then went on to be performed all over the world – in Montreal alone in the last couple of years, it’s had productions in at least three venues, including the Theatre du Nouveau Monde.
As with Blackbird, this is a male-female two-hander from a Scottish Playwright, this time David Greig, which has also recently done spectacular business in Montreal (it returns in December and early 2015 with a revival of La Licorne’s production).
Unlike three of the plays on the list, this one breaks out of the close confines of a single room to wander around multiple locations as its lovelorn young characters pubcrawl around Edinburgh to the accompaniment of live songs. Charming and unashamedly romantic, it also contrasts with the tooth-and-claw sex wars of the other plays.
The Blue Room
The casting of Nicole Kidman as one half of the cast (opposite Iain Glen) in David Hare’s 1998 adaptation of Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde didn’t exactly scupper its box office appeal, especially given the inclusion of a nude scene (leading critic Charles Spencer to famously, or infamously, declare it “pure theatrical viagra”).
Hare updated Schnitzler’s 1900s setting to modern times as a roundelay of rutting couples, all played by the same two actors, court heartache, regret and, as delicately suggested by Schnitzler, syphilis.
“Kill the bitch!” screamed audience members at the climax of David Mamet’s monumentally controversial ’90s play, as university professor John finally unleashes his rage at Carol, the feminist student whose accusations of sexual harassment have threatened his career.
Mamet’s play famously ignited furious arguments in the foyer, some of them reportedly resulting in ruptured relationships. Despite its ambivalence towards both characters, Oleanna carries with it the stench of reactionary contempt for uppity feminists – Mamet’s own recent political journey to the right further bolsters that reputation. But when Harold Pinter directed it with majestically complex sensitivity in the late 90s, it was possible to read it both as a horror story about the most savage aspects of female solidarity, and as a kind of modern Greek tragedy in which John is mercilessly stripped of his delusions right down to the raw core of his swaggering male hubris.