When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is S&M for Ocado customers

Cate Blanchett's National Theatre debut shows the difference between spank-me-harder clichés and words which are truly wounding.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In his show Duffer, the comedian Ahir Shah talks about how his depression affected his sex drive. “I used to watch porn films,” he says. “To the end.”

It was a stinging joke, relying on shared knowledge which goes largely unspoken: the mechanics of sex are, from a dramatic point of view, quite dull. And you already know how it’s going to finish.

I remembered Shah’s words when watching When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, written by Martin Crimp and directed by Katie Mitchell, with Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane leading a cast of six. The first two names in that sentence explain why it is being staged in the Dorfman, the smallest of the National Theatre’s three stages. Inside Vicki Mortimer's claustrophobic set – a suburban garage, complete with hosepipe, Audi and three-bar heater – the avant-garde writer and director have placed a willfully obscure, perpetually disconcerting text. You know Wicked? This is the exact opposite of that.

From the subtitle, we are promised “12 Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela”, an eighteenth-century novel about a serving maid who resists her master’s advances for so long that he agrees to marry her. What we get is two hours of sex games between an unnamed couple. Blanchett and Dillane switch roles, often within the same scene, and both wear Coco de Mer underwear beneath their other costumes (business suit, maid’s outfit, wedding dress). They invoke the names of Pamela, Mr B and the novel’s housekeeper/jailer, Mrs Jewkes.

It’s a play which tries extremely hard to be provocative. “I’d rather be raped than bored,” says Blanchett early on, talking into a microphone inside the Audi. The lights flicker. The scene changes. Now Dillane is telling us of a trip into town to buy some cherries. Now he wants her to crawl on the floor to reach the cherries. Now she’s dressed in his suit, belching. Now she’s flirting coyly with Mrs Jewkes as she puts on lipstick. Now she’s being trussed up in a bridal costume and recounting a dream about a wounded animal. 

The two lead actors are undoubtedly excellent, and thank god. If they didn't switch registers, tones and costumes so fluently, any hope of following the narrative would be utterly lost. What does it all mean? It’s impossible to tell, and I suspect that’s the point. We are invited to question the equation of masculinity with dominance. We are encouraged to wonder, as contemporary readers of Pamela did, whether women feign sexual reticence – and whether that is its own kind of power. (In that case, though, why does the play end with Cate Blanchett’s character getting out a strap-on, while her male partner tells her that “I think the reason you’re not listening is because I’m a woman”.)

This is one of those plays – like Ella Hickson’s The Writer, last year at the Almeida – where everyone who knows you’ve seen it texts you afterwards to compare reactions. (Many begin: “What the . . .”) It is doggedly intent on baffling you: plots, character names, all that apparatus of naturalism is for the unenlightened.

Unfortunately, just as there is a category called “theatre funny” – where audiences laugh to show they got the joke, not because it amused them – much of this play is “theatre shocking”. OMG! An A-lister with a dildo! And yet the line which lands with the greatest punch is not the one about rape and boredom, but Man’s greeting to one of the four supporting characters: “Yes, Mrs Jewkes. But first I have a question. Why are you so fat?” It’s a line which only works in performance, because the actress involved is indeed fat. You bristle on her behalf. And in that moment, you can see the difference between the ooh-spank-me-harder clichés of S&M roleplay and words which are truly wounding.

There is also another echo of The Writer, which attacked the conventional forms of theatre, while also making excuses about why that made the play you were seeing less watchable. Here, the final scene suggests that Man and Woman are playing all these sex-games as a respite from an upper-middle-class life of picnics, blameless domesticity and their recommended allowance of fruit and vegetables a day. God yes, you think, the problem with S&M is that everyone involved has no sense of how ridiculous it looks to be a management consultant in suspenders, getting flogged between Ocado deliveries! Except that for the preceding two hours, Man and Woman have been deadly serious about it.

When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other made me think: this is why the Germans are the acknowledged world leaders at both fetish clubs and incredibly portentous director’s theatre. They are not burdened by the British reflex to snigger. Maybe they even watch porn films to the end.

***

From sex to Six, a musical about the wives of Henry VIII, which has returned to the Arts Theatre Soho until May before embarking on a UK tour. It was written, terrifyingly, by two students at Cambridge who took it to Edinburgh Festival before an award-winning first run last year. The premise is simple: the wives battle to see who got the worst deal from Big Hal, expressed through the medium of pop songs and rap, before concluding in truly feminist fashion that it shouldn’t be a competition, yeah, and they won’t be defined by a man.

Unexpectedly, the best tune goes to Anne of Cleves, who points out that she got to keep her head and live out her post-Henry life in a sweet palace in Richmond. At just 75 minutes, it was funny, with sharp characterisation and memorable tunes. By the end, everyone was on their feet. I can’t wait to see what the borderline fetuses behind it, Toby Marlow and Lucy Moss, do next.

"When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other" is at the National Theatre until 2 March. Day seats only. Six is at the Arts Theatre, Soho and then on tour. Tickets here.

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.