‘When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other’ is a lot. Like a lot a lot. It would be a lot even if there was nothing particularly unusual about it other that it starred noted screen icon Cate Blanchett. As it is, it stars noted screen icon Cate Blanchett and is also a batshit crazy dark comedy about a couple who indulge in an elaborate semi-sadomasochistic role-play game loosely based around Samuel Richardson’s seminal proto-novel ‘Pamela’.
So there’s that.
The play is by avant-garde luminary Martin Crimp and is directed by the great Katie Mitchell, a woman who fell out of favour with the previous National Theatre regime for making work that was too weird. And, yeah, it’s pretty weird, even if it’s one of the usually austere Mitchell’s more overtly fun shows.
We open on six figures with gaffer tape over their mouths filing into a suburban garage, dressed as hotel maids. Eventually two of them (never named) reveal themselves to be Blanchett and Stephen Dillane playing... a married couple? They're indulging in what at first seems like a fairly humdrum role play wherein he’s the dominant master (a figure roughly equivalent to the book’s Mr B) and she’s the young, vulnerable Pamela. Except she’s not playing ball, and angrily tries to get a rise out of him; only when he becomes somewhat deflated, she tries to gee him up again. Then, they swap roles: he becomes Pamela; she becomes Mr B. Repeat for two hours, and, er, that’s kind of the plot.
It is a very peculiar play: anybody lucky enough to win in the ballot required to buy tickets to see it (such is Blanchett’s star power) would hopefully have done their homework on Mitchell and Crimp and be expecting something reasonably challenging. But the biggest challenge is discerning whether or not it has a point to make. The messiness of gender, the complications of desire, the importance of the taboo, the performative nature of male and female roles, the tension between feminism and lust... these are all things at play here, but I’m not sure it ever says anything particularly penetrating about any of them. And Richardson’s novel seems to be referred to ironically – its outdated morality is carried into the role-play, but Crimp’s protagonists seem, at best, ambivalent about it.
After a while I tuned down my worries about what it all meant and started to appreciate its undeniably campy sense of humour, and the fine performances. Blanchett is scorchingly good when her character is bored, angry or a man: sometimes imperious and imposing, sometimes terrifying and ludicrous as she rants away in her power-drunk male guise, that retina-searing charisma cranked up to the max. Dillane is actually better, though: he can do the pompous egoistical sadist thing, but there’s always an air of desperate, pitiable weakness there. And he frequently drops into a fascinating, morose minor key that Blanchett never really comes close to replicating – she doesn’t really do subtle. His gender seems more meaningfully fluid; her masculinity feels performative.
Mostly, the rest of the cast has very little to do, though there’s a great turn from Jessica Gunning as the man’s vulnerable/seductive housekeeper Mrs Jewkes – even if some of Crimp’s lines about her weight are profoundly hard to love.
I suppose at its basic level it’s a play about shifting power in a room, which is more or less what Pinter made his entire career out of. But adding S&M to that feels both on-the-nose and fairly unilluminating. Mitchell’s twitchy, febrile direction and a fine electronic score from Melanie Wilson give it a sense of depth, but I can’t help but think the play itself is kind of shallow. It is also not sexy, really, which is perhaps a problem.
I enjoyed it as a ride, though; certainly the mounting silliness of the final scene confirmed that it had a sense of humour. Genuinely not wishing to be condescending, but I suspect Blanchett stans may prove the most receptive audience, given the general archness: her OTT monologues and the part where she snogs another woman are some of the best bits. Or to put it another way, they’ll enjoy her performance and perhaps worry less about the play not being vintage Crimp.
It does feel like a bit of a missed opportunity, mind, and I can’t help but wonder what might have been if Blanchett had decided to say ‘screw it’ and do ‘Hamlet’ or something. As it is, we have one of the greatest actors in the world using one of her very occasional stage outings to star in an oddball S&M play that doesn’t quite work. But there’s something to be said for that, I think.