Dorfman, National Theatre – until 2 March 2019
It is bracingly refreshing to see the kind of artistic decisions that drive Cate Blanchett’s theatrical career, so often complex, contemporary takes on classic work which show a performer never content to rest on her laurels. Which leads us to her National Theatre debut in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other – 12 Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, written and directed respectively by noted iconoclasts Martin Crimp and Katie Mitchell.
And as such, it certainly is something of a challenge. Played for its two hours without interval, Blanchett and co-star Stephen Dillane act out a series of psychosexual, sado-masochistic role-playing games and that’s about it. There’s strap-ons and shaving foam, backseat shenanigans and boxes of cherries, and an untold amount of portentous chat which sometimes, sometimes, sears through to the soul.
That’s because Blanchett and Dillane really are top-level actors and both have several moments of inspired work, which it feels an absolute privilege to witness in the intimacy of the Dorfman (the payoff for the ballot, I suppose). And as they, and Crimp and Mitchell, tackle the intersection of gender and power in the fluid flux of contemporary society, peeling back what the roles we want to play say about us, those moments of insight are powerful, particularly in some effective monologues.
Vicki Mortimer’s design re-creates a suburban garage to an exceptional degree, Melanie Wilson’s sound design casts a bewitching spell, and the supporting company of four onlookers are a nigglingly intriguing presence which is never quite explained, Jessica Gunning’s increasing role particularly pleasing. Over the two hours though, it’s hard not to want a touch more tonal variety as each new iteration of the game leaves us pretty close to where we were originally. But once you’ve recalibrated your expectations to the way in which the team here are working, there’s something to enjoy in its batshit relentlessness.