Martin Crimp’s new play When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other opened to giddy reports of audience members fainting during previews. And this strange production does shock and appal, but not for its uncomfortable themes or graphic depictions of violence, but for its wilful lack of coherence and unrelenting tedium.
Somehow director Katie Mitchell takes a play that features Cate Blanchett wearing a strap-on dildo penetrating a man wearing the vestiges of a French maid’s outfit, and makes it excruciating only in its dullness.
It’s loosely based on Samuel Richardson’s 18th century novella about a man who kidnaps a young woman, holds her against her will and eventually marries her after they fall in love. In this reimagining, a modern couple play sex games in their garage, hiring local youths to stand around and watch as the man acts out a patriarchal power fantasy, goading his “captive” with boasts about his wealth.
Blanchette’s character, Woman, doesn’t take it lying down, so to speak, belittling her beau’s inane monologues, resisting his vague threats of physical violence, seemingly ruining his sexy game at every turn, although she is willing to crawl across the ground in exchange for a punnet of cherries.
As the play progresses, the scenarios become increasingly violent, with Man taking out his sadistic urges on a local boy hired to pleasure his bloodied “bride”. Occasionally the lights flicker on, signifying a break in the role-play when the players can reapply their makeup and wipe off the blood.
The two leads occasionally switch roles, with Woman donning a suit and Man stripping to a negligee. Blanchett is magnetic throughout, but it’s during these scenes that she really shines, switching register on a dime, as convincing as a man as she is a woman.
If you squint you can make out vague messages about the absurdity of the patriarchy, about feminist attitudes to female desire, about gender fluidity, about the perversions that arise from the boredoms of the bourgeoisie. But I could be totally wrong. I have no idea why it was set in a garage, or why the characters would occasionally lock themselves in a car, or why their preferred method of communication was through a karaoke machine. By the end, I didn’t much care.
The National’s Dorfman theatre is where it hosts its more experimental productions: this experiment is, alas, a failed one.