When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, National Theatre, Dorfman
PUBLISHED: 17:02 24 January 2019 | UPDATED: 10:35 25 January 2019
© Stephen Cummiskey 2019 / +44 (0)79 2978 6305 firstname.lastname@example.org
S&M antics and gender swapping don’t make for a riveting night out at the theatre despite a luminous performance by Cate Blanchett
Or alternatively, when we have sufficiently tortured the audience with two hours of tedious S&M antics – without access to so much as a toilet or warm white wine.
Perhaps deliberately, not only are we locked-in for the duration, but so are the supporting cast, trapped on Vicki Mortimer’s breezeblock garage set with little to do but react to the unfolding roleplay between Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane’s Man and Woman.
They’re wealthy swingers paying them to be part of sexual shenanigans that include gags, wigs, a scalpel, a strap on dildo, dressing as maids and schoolgirls, and staging a mock wedding.
At one point Woman is tossed off in her gown by a buff boy who’s been kicked around by Man. If all this sounds edgy or faint-inducing, it’s much more boring than that.
Loosely based on Sameul Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela about a housemaid who falls in love with and marries the master who tried to rape her, Katie Mitchell’s production includes scenes spoken into microphones inside an Audi, a continuous, irritatingly portentous soundrack, and so much role switching it’s hard to keep pace with the voices and personas.
The alienation is turned up to 11, but uncoupled from plot, character, or social context, Crimp’s enactment of fluid sexual roles and patriarchal power play is drier than a gender studies lecture.
Pamela wants agency to write her own story but of course Richardson and Crimp are men controlling the discourse. The performative nature of gender roles; what is perversity? who is the victim? and is Pamela empowered or suffering from sexual Stockholm syndrome? On it goes like so many thumps to the head.
The pity is that Blanchett and Dillane give commendably committed performances that make you yearn for something more poignant and substantial.
Laconic, oddly weedy Dillane can spin gold from a waffly speech about cherries or bees. And Blanchett impressively switches register from destroyed and abused to bullying and briskly practical in the time it takes to slip out of a suit into a negligee.
The porn-mag aesthetic of basque and fishnets both Man and Woman wear carries the bitter irony that for all its posturing about gender roles, the main spectacle here remains a beautiful actress on stage in suspenders.
Perhaps if Crimp had taken a deeper dive into, say, toxic masculinity he might have produced something more watchable.