When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other by Martin Crimp
National Theatre / directed by Katie Mitchell
Seen on January 26, 2019
Score: 4 / 5
‘I’d rather be raped than bored.’ So remarks one of the characters in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other. And such is the spirit in which the play wants to awaken its audience from what it takes to be a certain torpor (or timidity) characteristic of some contemporary discourse on sex and sexual politics. Provocative it surely is, but to what exact end—that is harder to unpack.
In his new play, aptly subtitled ‘Twelve Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela’, Martin Crimp deploys an infamous 18th-century novel’s plot as an incubator to generate a series of sexually charged scenes that depict an unnamed couple, Man and Woman, engaged in twisted pursuits of power, pleasure, and autonomy. In Katie Mitchell’s disquietingly stark and tonally monochromatic production, all twelve scenes take place, with nearly indiscernible transitions, in a bleak but bizarrely well-equipped garage, where Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane frequently exchange the characters (and costumes) of Pamela and Mr B—the servant and the master at the heart of Richardson’s novel. Not for nothing is all this cross-dressing and role-switching: it insistently brings to the fore the performative constructedness and indeterminacy of such categorical binaries as masculine/feminine and dominant/submissive that run through the play (not to mention our lives). This is, through and through, a battle of sexes on steroids, where the frontlines are always changing and nothing is fixed or fixable. At stake is not only the ethics of sex, but its economics—the ways in which sex implies and feeds on differentials of ownership, reach, and need. Indeed, the play’s discourse on sexual agency and ascendancy is entangled with its abiding interests in social class and age, particularly as they pertain to—and shape—the body.
Running through every vein of Crimp’s script is the notion that power in any sort of sexual relationship is inherently performative. Man and Woman insist on, and amply demonstrate, the crucial and excruciating role of language—either as speech or as writing—in carrying out that performative work. The levers of power in these twelve scenes are pulled by what does or doesn’t come out of the characters’ mouths, what they put into words (and how, and when), what those words reveal or obscure. The question of who gets to speak or write looms over the play’s elusive nexus between domination and submission, pointing to the apparent victor of each scene, while exposing how transient, and merely theatrical, such victory may be. The disturbing scene where Man holds Woman in a grip and tyrannically dictates the (seemingly) happy ending of Pamela for her to type (as though she were recording her own thoughts) is a perfect example of the perilous slipperiness of the terrain that the characters tread, and of the discursive deceptions that it may easily beget.
The play’s trenchantly critical spirit is at times countervailed by its fast-paced, shape-shifting dramaturgy. There is hardly any space to breathe, either for the main characters or for us. We are asked to digest a lot, and continuously, which leads to interpretive plateaus at certain moments. There is, in other words, much provocation going on, but the margins for reflection are minimized. Still, it’s a cause for wonder that a play this relentlessly cryptic is also intensely watchable. Its manifold challenges, including the uncertainties it creates as to what we can, or should, expect from such a strange work, arrest one’s attention to a considerable degree. It’s a slow burn, but it does end up burning its imprint on one’s mind.
So far, so good, but what the production really needs is a stronger frame to convey, or imply, its rules of engagement. It doesn’t have to be clear or explicit, but it needs to be there. Granted, Mitchell’s production opens with five characters joining the Woman in the garage, entering the space silently and hurriedly, with mouths taped shut, getting ready to (en)act whatever they have been contracted (or convinced, or forced) to do. It’s a frustratingly unrevealing, rather than temptingly ambiguous, prelude to an already opaque work. From there we swiftly plunge into the first scene, between Man and Woman, and it’s not until halfway through the play that the rest of the cast join the action, though slightly and often silently. It really takes no less than half an hour to glean the mechanics of the play, at least partially. Given that Crimp’s script does not provide any details or instructions about the material context in which his scenes dwell, it is entirely up to the director to imagine and construct the theatrical word within which these fragments cohere. Crucially, the amount of details that Mitchell provides of her world is at once too great to allow the play to operate as a full-fledged allegory and too small to explain its logic through a concrete meta-narrative.
So, we are led to ask, what is this that we are seeing unfold? Is this a (married) couple putting themselves through a particularly exacting form of sexual therapy? Or a group of professional performers investigating the sexual boundary between the self and the other by extreme means? Or a self-aware, hyper-theatricalized response, on the part of these six characters, to Richardson’s novel? That the production makes it possible for all these options (alongside many others) to coexist without annulling each other might be deemed an achievement, but the result would have been much more satisfying if such hermeneutic openness was buttressed by more particular and self-assured details regarding the architecture of the play.
Despite these dramaturgical blurs, both Blanchett and Dillane deliver razor-sharp performances of harrowing tension: Blanchett is simultaneously commanding and vulnerable in all the different shades of her part, whether she is enacting the narcissistic Mr B or the deceptively naive Pamela. Those few moments when she fleetingly slips out of her given character, reminding us of the production’s other layers, are especially phenomenal. Dillane, too, is thoroughly impressive in his finely calibrated renderings of a number of personas, ranging from a distressed, out-of-character Man to a loquaciously oppressive Mr B. Though four other actors join them, they are sadly sidelined to near-negligible parts, except for Jessica Gunning, who delivers towards the end a tantalising performance as the sexually erupting Mrs Jewkes. (One can’t help but wonder if the play could have benefitted from the elimination of the two Girls, and if more use could have been made of Ross and Mrs Jewkes.) But let’s face it: this is Blanchett and Dillane’s show, so much so that it feels like a two-hander at times.
Melanie Wilson’s perfectly ambient sound design contributes to the steely tonality of the production, as does James Farncombe’s slyly modulating but consistently wintry lighting. Vicki Mortimer’s set is often unfriendly to those audiences seated on the sides, but its crammed, claustrophobic, and realist simplicity is part and parcel of Mitchell’s rendition of this play. It’s not the most cunning combination of design elements, more restrictive than facilitating, especially in and around the car. But it does work: for a play so preoccupied with the penumbral dynamics of intimacy, such uncomfortable closures and kinetic limitations are both practical and evocative.
At the end of the day, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is a work as demanding as it is engaging. Crimp and Mitchell give us a lot to process (probably more than is feasible at a single sitting), and they rightly request, in return, a high level of critical attention and a spirit of openness. The ride is neither smooth nor safe, but it is certainly—and sufficiently—riveting.