Review: When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, National Theatre

Published in The Independent January 24, 2019

Well, here’s a chance to see a Hollywood star up close and extremely personal. Cate Blanchett stars in a new Martin Crimp play, which stages an elaborate S&M sex game in a garage. Normally, to start a review of a celebrity performance by commenting on how they stride around sexily in suspenders would seem tacky, but that literally is the, ahem, thrust of the show. Game of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane is similarly trussed up, if that helps. 

Still, it’s a Crimp play, directed by long-time collaborator, the famously austere Katie Mitchell, so it’s not exactly Fifty Shades of Grey. The show uses Samuel Richardson’s 1740 epistolary novel Pamela; or Virtue rewarded as a “provocation”. Richardson’s story tells of a teenage servant who refuses her master’s advances, so he abducts her and tries to rape her. Pamela continues to resist, so he eventually proposes to her, marriage being her “reward”. 

Here, that story becomes the basis for a modern couple’s intricately constructed, but apparently consensual, sexual role play. Crimp’s dialogue, and their pin-sharp performances, are constantly mutating: Blanchett moves between a fluting, fluttering pure pastiche of the helpless little “Pamela” to a woman asserting her own power to – occasionally – glimpses of what just might be “reality”. 

She is brilliant: one of those simply magnetic performers, as poised as she is potent. It’s a chilly sort of play – all about surfaces, not much about the heart – but she sure makes those surfaces gleam. Every modulation, every snap between different poses or characters, is clearly defined. Dillane matches her: urbane, deceptively light, at times absurdly patronising, he sails through the material. Together, they are also very funny. 

It seems we’re in for a dense look at gender politics, sexual stereotypes, and who gets to control the narrative by literally writing the stories. Can a woman ever genuinely wish to be dominated by a man – or is that simply internalised patriarchy? And does that even matter? 

All that is in there – but, cleverly, that’s also part of the game. One of the ways the couple enjoy hurting each other is through recriminations about who has power, about how gender plays into that. This is not just being turned on by acting out very old cliches of male-female domination and submission, but using a modern critique of those to help deepen the cuts a little. 

Plus, it cuts both way: the Man also sometimes plays Pamela, in suspenders and pinny; the Woman also literally wears the trousers, Blanchett enjoyably louche in the masculine role. Gender is performance, and all that. These switches are performed by (to use the kink term) switches: neither purely sub or dom, the Man and Woman both enjoy both. 

That is a strength – it’s refreshing to see something about BDSM where such desires aren’t explained away as being caused by trauma, particularly in the woman’s case. But it’s also a weakness – if this is all just a game, the stakes are somewhat low. When We Have Sufficiently… has an ominous atmosphere throughout, as is typical of Katie Mitchell, but if it’s all just good consensual fun, what does the play really have to say? 

Unless – and bear with me here – this has really become a critique of capitalism? The couple employ other people to be part of their elaborate set-up, young men and women woodenly assuming typically “sexy” roles – schoolgirl, hunky servant, lesbian warden – and quite literally lending a hand in certain steamy moments. But the violence of the scenarios becomes a little too real at points: this pleasure comes at the cost of genuine pain, pain that can be just paid off. (Side note: it’s really not very gory, and feverish reports of a fainter were surely a one-off). 

The Man has stagey speeches about inequality and how wildly rich he is; there are some queasy passages about one of the helpers being fat because she is poor. Perhaps it all adds up to a comment on the commodification of desire, and the eternal ability of the powerful – aka the wealthy – to always get what they want, acting out their desires on those with less money or power. 

Whatever is going on, the writing constantly intrigues, while also being surprisingly just quite fun. Snooping on this couple’s very involved fantasy is a bit sexy, and a bit ghastly. But Blanchett fans are likely to be very satisfied indeed. 

Where next?