Before the lights descended tonight, a ton of people excitedly looked the auditorium up and down as if hoping Cate Blanchett would fly out of the Dorfman’s ceiling. Had I missed something? Was this rumoured to happen when all the rumours happened? (It didn’t) Also, she is not taking part in a gore-athon, which apparently has caused audience members during previews to faint. If When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other: 12 Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela (such a lovely, snappy ring to it, don’t you think?) is going to shock you that much, then you should probably get out more. I’m not going to grasp at clichés and claim it nicked two precious hours of my life… but it kinda did? This really is a long, drawn-out and misty affair that has glimpses of clarity but cannot be saved, even by some strong performances. Eek.
Directed by Katie Mitchell (enough to generate intrigue-aplenty) and starring Blanchett (enough to introduce a ballot just to book a goddamn ticket), Martin Crimp’s play is inspired by Pamela, Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel which, as you may or may not know, was a scandalous and immediate success upon publication. So much so that by 1742 it had already gone through six editions and a fifteenth by 1810, before inspiring a plethora of plays later. It tells the story of a teenage servant (Pamela) who is pursued, imprisoned and emotionally tortured and dominated by her captor/ master, Mr B. By the end she is pressured into marriage. Simply put, Blanchett and Game of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane play a couple – Woman and Man – who seem to be stuck in a weird kind of sexual role play in a garage – complete with car that also brings in four other characters. Not so simply put, Blanchett and Dillane play variations on Pamela and Mr B; characters that play with both our and ‘standard’ expectations of what gender, sex, sexuality and subsequent forms of power are. There are many important details that occur, not least a scene involving Blanchett being fingered in a wedding dress. Now, didn’t that happen in Lord of the Rings…?
Reading the original text that When We Have Sufficiently… is based on is beneficial because you know, context, but storyline wise, that ain’t going to be too much help. There’s just A LOT going on. At the same time. And there’s squirty cream being used erotically. Most prominent here is Crimp’s exploration of power, as mentioned; how it is turfed out of the source material and essentially, albeit in a frequently ambiguous way, turned on its head. Role reversal is the vehicle within which this is supposed to be relayed to us and it has its intended impact, not least with the use of costumes and wigs (design by Sussie Juhlin-Wallen) but at times it all feels bafflingly basic. Man tells us, “I have modern ideas about sex. I believe women should enjoy it”. Slightly moist with irony yes, but is it going to inform anyone’s ideas on gender? Are we going to leave reeling? It’s early dialogue like this that sets the tone or rather makes you wonder what the hell the tone is.
This just should be better given the calibre of talent involved. Special mention must go to Jessica Gunning’s housekeeper, Mrs Jewkes, who more than holds her own alongside Dillane and Blanchett. All, it must be said, are spectacular. It’s just unfortunate that the two-hour – without an interval – runtime feels more like eight.
There are some really, dare I say it, inspiring moments that bring about some clarity. Blanchett’s Woman, who, like the original Pamela has been chronicling her ordeal, finally appears to gain control over her own story and as a collective we breathe a sigh of relief. It is when Man removes this power, claims, once again, ownership over her and bats away her fleeting liberation by dictating the story she will tell, that we are given the first chills of the evening. By god this is a horrible scene but the fact that we can feel it in all respects is wonderful. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
This show has been and will continue to be carried by star power. There’s just no escaping that. It’s what brings in the dollar. But such power games between not only men and women, but between the patriarchy and all of us have never been quite as clear as they are now and it’s imperative we see theatre that carries this message; inspiring and educating us along the way. Star power is just not enough to carry this so do yourself a favour and go into it for more personal reasons. What story do you want to be told?
When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is playing at the National Theatre until March 2. For more information and tickets, see the National Theatre website.