When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other review: Cate Blanchett is flawless but the play is disappointing ★★★

Martin Crimp's new offering at the National Theatre doesn't quite live up to the hype

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The anticipation of Cate Blanchett’s return to the London stage in what was billed as an ’S&M-themed play’ was already huge enough, but when it was announced that tickets would only be available through public ballot, getting seats acquired the status of a golden ticket in a bar of Willy Wonka’s chocolate. Stories that one preview-goer had fainted during an early performance only threw more coal on the fire.

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Unfortunately, the experience doesn’t quite live up to expectation.

At the outset six stealthy figures, gagged with gaffer tape, sneak into a large, cluttered suburban garage. They’re there, seemingly, for Cate Blanchett’s submissive Pamela – a name she disputes is hers – and Stephen Dillane’s dominating patriarch to indulge in some aggressive role play, while the others voyeuristically watch from the shadows.

As the scenes play out, though, (there are twelve individual ‘scenarios’ in total) it becomes increasingly unclear whether there is an understanding between them that they are simply assuming roles, or even there by choice. Each fluidly assumes the aggressor – bullying and controlling the other until they either react sharply or become biddable.

In doing so it attempts to question who is the victim, and who the victimiser, but the fragments are too ambiguous to find any deeper understanding. The characters, especially the periphery participants, are too obtuse and don’t appear to be being their true selves. So, when they say something that should be shocking, such as Pamela’s muse that she’d rather be raped than bored, it feels like a performance for effect, and doesn’t resonate as it should. 

Writer Martin Crimp used Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel Pamela, about an employer’s forceful pursuit of his young maidservant, as a provocation. Here, though, both leads are of similar age, and we never discover their relationship to each other, so any tension of age, status and power is missing. As the characters increasingly blur into one another, it takes on the off-kilter, hyper-reality feel of a J.G. Ballard novel, where you can’t trust what you’re seeing, and any discernible meaning is further muddied.

The acting can’t be faulted, both Blanchett and Dillane give solid performances and go at it with gusto (so to speak), and they’re more than ably supported. There are some sharp scenes, such as when Dillane’s character confronts Pamela with her private writing about him, and they maintain the pace and energy for the full two-hours straight-through. 

The overall effect, though, is a little disappointing. The billing promised to break through the surface of contemporary debate on desire, but, apart from offering a slightly more graphic depiction of various modes of sexuality, it’s not clear what it actually adds to the conversation.

When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other runs at the Dorfman, London, until 2 March.

Nick Wells

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