Dorfman, National Theatre – until 2 March 2019
The publicity for Martin Crimp’s new play, gleefully stoked by the National Theatre, has been all about Cate Blanchett and ‘bondage’ scenes. With the chance to even book available only to winners of a ballot, it is not clear why the theatre felt it needed to brief the press about fainting audience members. This approach, and the surrounding tumescent excitement, reminiscent of the male critic-drive fuss around Nicole Kidman’s appearance in Blue Room in the 1990s, sells the performers short. It also builds expectations to unsustainable levels for what is an intriguing, but strangely disconnected and piece.
Katie Mitchell’s staging takes places in a garage, stunningly realised by Vicki Mortimer: not an elegant garage, but an entirely ordinary breeze-block and fibreboard carport, with an interior door leading to somewhere we never see. There’s an Audi parked up on stage, the setting for a number of scenes.
The main performers are Blanchett and Stephen Dillane, performing 12 episodes in the coercive/consensual relationship between the unnamed pair. Nominally based on Samuel Richardson’s 18th century novel Pamela – in which a squire attempts to rape his teenage maid and eventually ‘rewards her virtue’ by marrying her – Crimp’s play seems intended to test the boundaries of what can and can’t be said and done between a man and a woman.
It is all about roles, as the pair act out their relationship in front of an onstage audience – modern-day servants, who get involved in the action. They also frequently swap roles, with Blanchett playing the man and Dillane the woman. Meanwhile, the entire scenario is a performance of an unspecified kind – the garage setting is never referred to or explained.
Crimp writes in a manner rarely seen on the 21st century British stage, his formal, stylised scenes more reminiscent of Howard Barker or Edward Bond than the realism that dominates contemporary drama. While his style can often be refreshing and exciting, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured One Another falls short of his best work.
Despite excellent performances from the two fine leads and the supporting cast, especially Jessica Gunning as the unexpectedly sexually confident housekeeper, it is hard to take the play seriously. The relationship between Blanchett and Dillane seems strangely old-fashioned, much more like a parody of 1970s gender roles than anything that relates to a recognisable present.
A sub-strand, in which Blanchett gets what she wants from the handyman and bit-of-rough, plays like a Lady Chatterley spoof. It would be a mistake to take the play entirely seriously in any case, and it is at its best when sliding into absurdist humour. The climactic (in both senses) scenes, involving a series of vigorous sex acts, including Cate Blanchett in an dildo from an Aubrey Beardsley drawing, are hilarious, taking on an around the Audi while the cast simultaneously delivers formal, explanatory speeches about their roles. But, although the comedy is beautifully delivered, Crimp’s testing of the boundaries, and exploration of what we would do if we were free from the constraints of gender-based expectation, has little to offer beyond the entertainment of seeing skilled performers at the top of their games.