When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other

A play by Martin Crimp
National Theatre

A woman, wearing a dressing gown waits inside an indoor garage at night. The sliding garage door lifts, and five people enter, before the door closes behind them. The Woman and one of the ‘intruders’ (a middle-aged Man) take off their respective outer clothing to reveal matching ‘female maid/lingerie ’ costumes.

As the other four figures wait on the periphery of both set and action, it becomes clear which two figures are (vying to be) in control.

a mildly interesting play about sexual gender-politics for older, rich folk

On the face of it, this play is about a very well-off middle-aged couple, living in a small English village, seeking to spice up their sex-life by engaging in various fantasies, fetishes and role-plays.

Both the playwright and the fictional couple use Samuel Richardson’s (for its time) ground breaking play, ‘Pamela’, as a jumping-off point. Playwright Martin Crimp lays out the 1740 play’s basic plot in the notes, thus:

“A 15-year old servant (Pamela) is approached by the master of the house (Mr B), who solicits her for sex. Encouraged by his housekeeper (Mr Jewkes), he tries and fails to rape her. More twists and turns ensue, they realise they’re in love, they marry.”

The two protagonists, then, alternate the roles of ‘Master’ or ‘Pamela’, in order to question and develop the power dynamic within their relationship, and (potentially) improve their sexual intimacy.

To further flesh out their fantasies, the present-day couple employ the services of the aforementioned locals: two teenage girls, one 20-something male (‘Ross’) and – in a gender-swapped departure from the original source material – a (slightly older) female ‘Mrs Jewkes’.

Well as fulfilling multiple (mainly non-speaking) roles within the couple’s narrative(s), ‘Ross’ (Craig Miller) and the two young girls (Emma Kindle and Babirye Bukilwa) are almost audience-surrogates: sometimes noticeably bored, oftentimes visibly confused and – in the case of ‘Ross’ – having to surrender to ‘Fight Club’ levels of verbal and physical masochism.

[NOTE: OK, nobody jumps from the stage to pummel an audience-member to a bloody pulp. Conversely, nobody from the stalls is paid money, and encouraged to beat a hasty post-orgasmic retreat (a la ‘Ross’); so it evens itself out.

Jessica Gunning’s ‘Mrs Jewkes’ has a slightly juicier role, but her declarations of love (to ‘Pamela’) and self-loathing seem hollow; but perhaps, as she represents no more than a manifestation of the couple’s fantasies, that is precisely the point.

That leaves us with the main actors.

Cate Blanchett (‘Woman’) and Stephen Dillane (‘Man’) are highly skilled, successful and experienced actors with huge charisma, and enviable careers. Despite their best efforts, I doubt whether this play will be seen as a highlight for either. Granted, they both perform reams of dialogue with style, skill, stamina and great physical dexterity but… let’s just say it’s easy to understand why – at about 2 hours and ten minutes – there’s no intermission!

I’m sure there is a great modern play that seeks to explore the mundanity of long-term relationships, and the desire to rekindle and/or re-ignite sexual intimacy within a ‘middle-aged’ marriage; however, this is not it!

The constant ‘ping-ponging’ power play; the incessant changing of the roles; the repeated ‘in-an-out’ (of cars, costumes, characters…), the nagging ‘buzzy’ soundscape (suggesting a fulfillment never felt – or perhaps sought); all of these elements made it seem rather…repetitive.

Director Katie Mitchell’s attempts to even up the gender score – making sure that the verbal blows of Cate Blanchett’s Woman land as forcefully as possible – but it is Stephen Dillane’s Man who draws blood, elicits subservience from all in his domain, and it is he that – both socially and sexually – ‘gets his rocks off’.

Yes, Woman orgasms too – but only at her master’s behest.

a superb set and high production values

Woman even strives to impose her own prowess as a writer, but Man only acknowledges the worthiness of her output when he, himself, dictates her words. The play culminates with the couple’s continued in-car sexual congress – all while discussing their 6-year marriage, their two young children, and the minutiae of their last family picnic; however, it is clear that it’s not just the audience that is running out of steam.

Samuel Richardson would probably recognise this play’s dynamic. It strives to say something about how far we’ve (not) come, but it isn’t as profound as it strives to be; nor is it as entertaining, funny or witty as it needs to be.

If descriptions of the sexual content make it seem more exciting, that was neither my intention, nor – I assume – that of the creative team.

This is a mildly interesting play about sexual gender-politics for older, rich folk. It features very good performances by two accomplished screen actors and a capable ensemble cast, with a superb set and high production values.

Right… I think that’s quite sufficient.

NEED TO KNOW: When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is at the National Theatre | It is sold out but there are a limited number of day tickets available.