What does one call the coming together of numerous powerhouses? A power complex? Whatever the term is, it makes sense to describe When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other. Starring Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane, the play marks another collaboration between the notable playwright, Martin Crimp and the prominent director, Katie Mitchell.
It consists of twelve variations on Samuel Richardson’s epistolary novel Pamela. The novel – mainly told through her letters to her parents – recounts how Pamela, a maidservant, resists her master’s incessant attempts at seduction and rape. After enough failed efforts, and after seemingly understanding some of the distress he has put Pamela through, Mr. B ‘rewards’ Pamela’s virtue by marrying her and endowing her with a higher status in society; but, the play is not interested in replicating that or any concise plot. Instead, the viewer receives twelve vignettes of what seems to be a complex sexual role-play between Woman (Blanchett) and Man (Dillane). These performances are variations upon the novel, in the sense that the fictive characters that Woman and Man assume during their role-play are Pamela and her master. This is not, then, the progression of a virtuous maid up the ranks of society, but an investigation of complex gendered hierarchies. However, all this talk of power and gender would bore Woman.
The piece begins with Man, in the role of Master, volubly stating his superiority over “Pamela” and self-complimenting his modern views on sex – he believes 'women should enjoy it'. Woman curtly replies with 'my name is not Pamela' and refuses to play along with this antiquated servant-master, or male-female, role-play, simply because it lacks excitement; at times this verges on cliché. Mitchell finds clever ways for Woman to embody this boredom: the couple sits in a car for the first scene, and each can only be heard by speaking into a handheld microphone. They dramatically wrestle over this microphone for some time, but Woman soon loses interest in this trite symbolism. She lets him have it, puts her feet on the dashboard, and grabs a second microphone that was within her reach all along. In fact, she is more repulsed by the boredom of clichéd role-play than she is by danger: 'I’d rather be raped than bored'.
It is this avoidance of boredom and cliché that lend the play its flexibility and humour. To make things more exciting, Man and Woman periodically switch between playing Pamela or her master for each other. What is more, one gets the sense that common ways of speaking, and common ways of being, are simply antiquated. Woman’s request for a 'glass of water' is answered with a plastic water bottle. Man lights a table lamp in order to read the text on a computer screen. These gestures are vacant remnants of past times; our language and instinctive reactions have not had time to acclimate to contemporary, fluid life. Perhaps these frigid ways of understanding the world are expressly at fault when I, as viewer, failed to find a coherent narrative in the play. The direction and performances exude theatric confidence, but they refuse to be understood through traditional narrative structures – there is not much of a plot.
Is the lack of plot a defect? It could be. Yet, it is easily overlooked with the production’s commanding nature: while Crimp’s dialogue is expertly crafted, an erroneous performance could render it, frankly, as too weird and offensive. Mitchell reins in this weirdness with an understandable enough scenario – some kind of role-play session – but its remaining ambiguity could still prove unappealing to viewers. Jessica Gunning’s portrayal of Mrs. Jewkes (Pamela’s keeper) successfully delivers the awkward cruelness of the antiquated modes of thought at play, but it is Blanchett’s expert manipulation of the themes, and Dillane’s purposeful obtuseness, that ground the play and inflict its bite.
Overall, the play provides a series of intriguing images and character interactions to puzzle over. It will not satisfy a viewer keen on getting an elaborate plot, but the tightly packed dialogue and direction give plenty to savour. It is Blanchett and Dillane’s performances, however, that bestow gravity upon what could easily slip into silliness and, in the process, plunder antiquated ways of thinking about gender, power, and theatre itself.
Edited by Evangeline Stanford, Digital Editor
Due to anticipation for the production all performances are sold out. However, a select amount of ‘Day Tickets’ are available for each performance (£15 or £18) from the Ground Floor box office upon opening at 9:30am. These tickets are for performances on the day of purchase and are not transferable.