Writer: Martin Crimp
Director: Katie Mitchell
Reviewer: Maryam Philpott
The National’s first big show of 2019 was causing controversy long before rehearsals began with the announcement that the show would take place in the small Dorfman theatre and members would have to try their luck in the ballot with everyone else. With plot details in lock-down and warnings of potentially distressing scenes, a possibly unrelated fainting incident at an early preview was a gift to headline writers eager to sensationalise. In reality When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is not nearly as shocking as you may have heard, but it is nonetheless a compelling and engaging piece of theatre.
The action takes place in the garage of a seemingly ordinary suburban house as a group of people prepare for the arrival of Man (Stephen Dillane). Over the next two hours a number of scenarios play out that debate ideas of sexual dominance, masculinity, gender and control as Man and Woman (Cate Blanchett) explore their attraction, desires and feelings of exposure. Whether this is a game or something much more fundamental is difficult to decipher in this complex merger of reality and fiction.
Based on Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela from 1740, Martin Crimp’s new play, directed by Katie Mitchell, is every bit as strange as we have come to expect from this pairing. It uses the basic arc and some incidents from the story of the servant girl pursued by the insistent Mr B as the basis for the role-play between Man and Woman who appear to act-out modernised scenes, while Crimp constantly shifts the power between them as truth and fantasy combine.
At the start the audience seems to be watching a relatively straightforward and traditional take on sexual dominance and submission, but there are many additional layers of narrative that Crimp introduces transferring the roles of Pamela and Mr B between Man and Woman, often in the middle of a scene. The characters of Man and Woman are also in constant flux, playing deeper roles-within-roles on occasion that challenge the fixed idea of gendered sexuality usually determined by forces external to the body.
Drawing on the structure of Richardson’s novel which uses letters and diary entries to tell Pamela’s story, Crimp is also concerned with the origins of voice, and on several occasions When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other focuses on Woman’s writing, the extent to which her thoughts are determined by the patriarchal confines that exist around her and at one point her recorded responses are dictated to her by Man becoming the official record of their encounter just as Pamela’s inner self is relayed by Richardson’s hand.
Making her National Theatre debut, double Oscar winner Blanchett’s commanding performance will more than satisfy the fans who flooded the ballot for tickets, but she never allows her star power to unbalance the show. There is a fluidity to her approach that allows her to weave effortlessly between the various shades of this multifaceted creation; at times she is silky voiced and honeying as the fake Pamela, using her sexuality while still in character to slowly turn the tables on Man, forcing him to see the control she has over her own desires, reflecting the top layer of Woman actively consenting to this rally between them.
By contrast, ideas of masculinity and self-emasculation drive Dillane’s character who is frequently forced to confront other people’s ideas of what it means to be a man. His pursuit of Woman / Pamela begins with words about his control but repeatedly he fails to act, to satisfy the desires he only ever verbalises. Dillane is superb, both seemingly relaxed in his own version of identity but increasingly troubled by the challenge to that world-view and a failure to impose his own desires on others.
The additional characters will also perplex, for a long time they don’t speak but are commanded by Man or Woman to watch or form part of the action on demand. Played by Jessica Gunning, Babirye Bukilwa, Emma Hindle and Craig Miller they offer plenty of texture as school girls, a companion and local workers in the role-play, but contribute to another debate about the difference in desire for Women / Girls or Men / Boys.
It’s only towards the end of When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other that it starts to feel wayward, with a grasping conclusion that wants to be scandalous, but there is a point to be made about familiarity with the body and the increasingly elaborate approaches to keeping desire alive. Mitchell deftly manages the shifting tone, creating a real but still unreal world simultaneously, and a flow that constantly has you wondering what will happen next. There are plenty of shows far more violent or shocking than this, but Crimp has produced a fascinating and entirely compelling anatomy of desire. An oddly intriguing evening but a satisfying one.
Until 2 March 2019 | Image: Stephen Cummiskey.