Paul T Davies reviews When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other now playing at the National Theatre London.
When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other.
24 January 2019
Richard Eyre, former Artistic Director of the National Theatre, once likened going to the theatre as having sex. I’m paraphrasing horribly, but basically he said, “Going to the theatre is like approaching sex. You go with a lot of anticipation, and most times it’s routine. Occasionally there are flops and disasters. But when it’s the best, you never ever forget it.” He was speaking in a Channel Four show called Blow Your Mind; See a Show, which was encouraging people to go to the theatre. Sadly, despite its titillation and sexual content, this play provides one of the flop nights and the only thing getting blown will be your wallet.
Martin Crimp’s When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, 12 Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, (to give it its full title), is set in a garage where a Man and a Woman, (they don’t identity using names), meet and carry out various role play games. In the book, a 15-year-old servant, (Pamela), is approached by the master of the house who solicits her for sex. She resists and he abducts her, and encouraged by the housekeeper, Mrs Jewkes, he tries and fails to rape her. After many twists and turns, they realise they are in love and marry. It’s a niche source, and with Katie Mitchell’s cerebral directing, the play feels is if it’s sealed off in a glass case, where the participants are committed to the game, but nothing projects out emotionally into the auditorium. It is two hours, (no interval- though that didn’t stop several people leaving), of bottom-numbing boredom. Trust me, these two barely shut up. The set by Vicki Mortimer is a faithful reproduction of a garage, complete with a car, which the couple get into for sex. Not only must this be a problem sightline wise for some of the audience, they are sealed off further, and, because we wouldn’t hear them, the couple uses microphones, not the kind of thing I expected to see being held during car sex unless I have been seriously misinformed about dogging.
There are positives, mainly the acting. After all, this is Cate Blanchett, one of the world’s best actors, and she slips seamlessly between servant, master, genders, (fluidity is a theme), with excellent vocal control and a total commitment to the material. As Man, Stephen Dillane felt underpowered at first, especially in the feminine roles where he seems less committed, but grows in stature as the play progresses. The couple are watched by four voyeurs, who also get roped, (no pun intended), into the action, and the characters are quite poor at role play. The poor loves would have gained more staying at home watching Sex Education on Netflix. I got increasingly worried about Ross, (Craig Miller), who, despite his perfect pecs and washboard stomach, gets beaten up by the Man, not the evening of pleasurable wanking Ross was expecting I’m sure. However, whilst Blanchet can’t raise the text into life, the excellent Jessica Gunning provides the highlight of the evening as Mrs Jewkes. She is fat, and I am allowed to say that, as it is her identification, and, taking the mic from the leads, she owns her body in a brilliant stand up routine. It’s by far the most interesting part of the play, and like the male on male power exchange with Ross, is another underdeveloped part of the script- I wanted more of those two voyeurs. The problem with the central relationship is that everything is consensual, there are no stakes., no risk- we never see how their sexual relationship liberates or inhibits them outside of the garage.
The arguments are interesting, and the Woman is definitely empowered. The programme notes are excellent, and perhaps this is a better discussion among friends rather than on stage. A year ago this venue staged Annie Baker’s John, which ended up on many critics Best Play list. This won’t happen here, and, even though it’s January, its status as Worst Play is there to be challenged. Certainly, it’s Most Disappointing. If you’ve got a ticket, don’t expect “theatrical Viagra”, but enjoy excellent acting. If you haven’t got a ticket, some sites are selling them for £800, so if you’re a rich sadist, go ahead and knock yourself out.