To say there’s been a lot of hype surrounding When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other would be an understatement. The announcement of Cate Blanchett’s National Theatre debut gathered so much interest that a ticket ballot system was introduced given the huge demand and limited space of the Dorfman Theatre. During previews eager theatregoers began queuing in the early hours of the morning in freezing conditions, and then the play hit the headlines last week when an audience member fainted, while others reported that the play was “shocking” and “sexually explicit”. But does the play live up to expectations, and is it as shocking as some claim?
Written by Martin Crimp, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other: 12 Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is inspired by the 18th century novel, where a young servant girl is imprisoned by her master (Mr B) and refuses his advances until they eventually fall in love and marry. Naturally. Kate Michell’s production, set in a modern day, suburban garage (designed by Vicki Mortimer) complete with an Audi, opens with all six cast members dressed as hotel maids sporting gaffer tape over their mouths. From that moment four characters retreat to the back of the stage where they continue to lurk as voyeurs while Man (Stephen Dillane) and Woman (Cate Blanchett) take centre stage. The pair carry out a series of sadomasochistic roleplaying games and what follows is a little sex, violence and blood, a not so little strap-on, and a lot of talking.
Over the course of two hours Man and Woman continue to swap roles as they vie for control, switching clothes and personalities. Both begin the play wearing maids’ outfits, but every now and then the woman dons the man’s clothes as she takes charge and becomes the dominant force, while he puts on a blonde wig, strips down to his lingerie and submits. They push each other’s buttons until it gets too much and they react, using the flick of a light switch in place of a safe word to break out of the drama.
The characters constantly feel as though they are performing which results in moments which should shock but instead fall flat (“I’d rather be raped than bored”). Having said that, Man’s unfair comments to Mrs Jewkes, (Pamela’s ‘jailer’) about her weight seem harsher and hard to swallow. At times the play is repetitive, at others its pretentious and baffling, but if you step back and simply appreciate the dark humour and acting talent on stage, it becomes an intriguing, if slightly too long, two hours (perhaps the 6 Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela would be an easier watch).
Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane are both excellent in their roles, despite being let down at times by the material. Stephen Dillane switches seamlessly from his role as the patronising, menacing master to a timid and submissive woman, and he’s particularly striking when he’s the cruel bully. He works well with Cate Blanchett, who is strong throughout, but she really showcases her acting range when she takes charge, puts on the trousers and becomes the angry, ranting man. Meanwhile Jessica Gunning is another bright moment of this production with her portrayal of Mrs Jewkes, and threatens to steal the show with her mournful wedding song. While the other cast members, Emma Hindle, Babirye Bukilwa and Craig Miller do their best, their talents feel wasted due to their limited involvement, although Craig Miller certainly makes an impact as Ross, getting into a fight with Stephen Dillane before performing a sexual act on Cate Blanchett. As you do.
While it may not necessarily live up to expectations, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is a dark humoured, somewhat odd yet gripping production, and worth a watch for the performances alone. But if it’s the shock value you’re after, there is nothing here that you wouldn’t see on post-watershed television.
By Kirsty Herrington
When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other continues to play at the National Theatre until the 2nd March.