The new play is a website-crashing sellout for the National Theatre thanks to a starring role from Cate Blanchett. Demand was so high, you had to ballot for the chance to even book tickets. But maverick director Katie Mitchell and cerebral playwright Martin Crimp ensure this drama is no crowd-pleasing star vehicle.
Instead, it’s an intense two hours of discourse on the politics of power. Inscrutable ideas around gender conformity, sexual submission, physical desires and domestic discordance play out in a series of increasingly titillating costumes. The profuse fake blood and graphic scenes have reportedly caused some audience members to faint.
Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey
As the full title – When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other: 12 Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela – suggests, it’s a modern re-working of the 1740 epistolary novel.
A salacious success in its day, the story follows 15-year-old Pamela, who is abducted by a wealthy landowner after refusing to acquiesce to his sexual demands. After many failed attempts to rape his captive, the man ends up convincing Pamela to love him and become his bride.
These themes of servitude and submission are brought into a contemporary domestic backdrop, while the back-and-forth letter writing structure of Richardson’s novel shapes the combative dialogue.
The stage is the garage of a suburban house, evocatively built by breeze blocks and beams, filled with all the trappings of family life. Role-playing dominates from the offset: characters dress up in costume, wordlessly, while a pulse-raising score makes you feel immediately anxious.
Craig Miller and Stephen Dillane. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey
Overlooked by four mostly silent actors, Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane are the couple at the centre of this power struggle, playing a series of strange sexual games.
Dillane undercuts the regular bouts of violence with unnerving gentility. Blanchett is, unsurprisingly mesmerising – slipping between vulnerability and viciousness, commanding the ever-changing register.
Those who come to see a Hollywood star up close certainly get their pound of flesh. We see Blanchett garishly girlish in a French maid outfit and blonde wig, ferocious in skimpy basque and suspenders, mansplaining in a suit, buttoned up in a frothy wedding gown, strapped into a large black dildo. She crawls across the floor for a punnet of cherries and groans orgasmically inside a car.
Cate Blanchett. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey
It may sound juicy, but the drama itself is relentlessly opaque. Perhaps it’s enlightening when pored over and studied, but as a piece of theatre Crimp’s play feels frigid and increasingly onerous to follow.
The twelve scenes (signalled with lights switching on and off) are rigorously repetitive, vacillating around the same violence and sex without developing into anything more. You begin to give up even bothering to decode the discourse, and feel relieved when it’s over.
Clearly this is a play that is supposed to be unsatisfying and challenging. But if you invest two hours in something and still struggle to distill any sense of significance, it inevitably feels pretentious. And considering the almighty talents and huge expectation surrounding this show, it’s especially disappointing to endure something so flat.
When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other day tickets: On the day of the performance, a limited number of cheap Day Tickets will be available in person from 9.30am. But we predict queues starting in the early hours.
|What||When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, National Theatre review|
|Where||National Theatre, South Bank, London, SE1 9PX | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Waterloo (underground)|
16 Jan 19 – 02 Mar 19, 7:30 PM – 10:00 PM
|Price||£15 - £65|
|Website||Click here for more information and tickets|