'When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other': Theater Review

Stephen Cummiskey
Stephen Dillane and Cate Blanchett in 'When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other'
Tickle torture.

Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane star at the National in Martin Crimp's new play about twisted desire and gender power games.

"Look, this is just an ordinary Tuesday. Don't make it into something it's not." Thus implores the male protagonist of London's first hot ticket of 2019, in response to his female counterpart refusing to crawl on her hands and knees toward him. On a Tuesday or any other day, this is far from an ordinary play. Indeed, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other may be one of the strangest ever staged at the National Theatre. 

Martin Crimp's luridly fascinating two-hour provocation, with its sub-heading Twelve Variations on Samuel Richardson's Pamela, dives headlong into the choppy waters of sexual politics and desire. Given the unequivocal nature of the #MeToo moment, it's a bold piece of work, directed with almost obsessive detail by Katie Mitchell and featuring compelling performances by Stephen Dillane and, particularly, Cate Blanchett. Yet its many idiosyncrasies eventually become self-defeating.  

Vicki Mortimer's set is a dimly lit garage, complete with car, chairs, tools, the usual paraphernalia. The six actors rarely leave the stage, performing frequent costume changes in front of the audience. Melanie Wilson's electronic sound design hums and prods constantly in the background. 

Richardson's 1740 epistolary novel concerned a landowner who fails in his attempt to rape his 15-year-old maidservant, before sincerely and successfully proposing marriage. Here, the two contemporary characters are first seen arguing in the car — both of them wearing maids' costumes. The unnamed man is attempting to assert his power, suggesting that he could have forced Pamela to join him but is allowing her to come under her own free will. She's having none of it and, in an early shot over the bows of the audience's comfort zone, contests, "I want to be raped. I want to be hurt."

Whether this is true or merely a ploy, the effect is the same, to introduce a discomforting sense of shared culpability, twisted desire, a combative equality. The powerplay that ensues is a dance of sorts around this oppressive space, the actors choreographed to the second as they constantly change clothes and cross-dress (one of the play’s most thrilling moments sees Blanchett take Dillane's clothes off him and dress herself in them), fight and fuck, seduce and berate, and generally tussle for control of the relationship. 

In keeping with its source, the power of and over words is a key theme, whether it's the man forbidding Pamela to write because he's threatened by what she has to say, or her making fun of his endless wittering, which is his attempt to consolidate his inflated sense of himself. At times, the woman feigns to speak as the man, notably when s/he declares that "to penetrate your body, that's all that counts," which only makes the violence of the desire all the more disturbing.

But lest there be any doubt as to the play's sensibility, the man's personality is frequently challenged in ways that will chime with both men and women in the audience. "What is it men like so much about girls — even the word 'girls'?" Blanchett barks. "Why are they so terrified of women?" 

Elsewhere, Crimp makes much of class divisions, notably as the man attempts to patronize another servant, Mrs Jewkes (Jessica Gunning), and again finds a woman more than able to turn the tables. 

In a mercurially brilliant performance, Blanchett takes her character across a gamut of expression: She's vulnerable, crass, seductive, ferocious, one moment giving as good as she gets, the next willing to succumb to the man's commands. The Australian has collaborated with Crimp before, on the playwright's translation of Botho Strauss' Big and Small, and clearly shares his willingness to rattle the audience's cage. 

Dillane is equally game — happily spending half the play in women's clothing — and makes hay with some challenging monologues; his character's pompous account of a failed trip to town to buy cherries is a gloriously amusing piece of storytelling, nicely punctured when the woman concludes, "So you went to the 7-Eleven." 

But there's a disarming moment when Dillane appears to be drifting off; intended or otherwise, it's when the play itself begins to lose steam. Ironically, all the endless talk that Pamela so mocks ultimately becomes reductive, and tiresome, as do the frequent costume changes and playing with props, the bursts of violence and mannered perversion. By the time a scantily clad Blanchett brandishes a dildo, it's clear that Crimp is all out of ideas. 

Venue: National Theatre, London
Cast: Cate Blanchett, Stephen Dillane, Jessica Gunning, Babirye Bukilwa, Emma Hindle, Craig Miller
Director: Katie Mitchell
Playwright: Martin Crimp
Set designer: Vicki Mortimer
Costume designer: Sussie Juhlin Wallén
Lighting designer: James Farncombe
Music and sound designer: Melanie Wilson
Presented by the National Theatre