Openings don’t come much more anticipated than this. Not just a new Martin Crimp play. Not just a new Martin Crimp play directed by Katie Mitchell. When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is a new Martin Crimp play directed by Katie Mitchell featuring Hollywood icon Cate Blanchett and Game of Thrones star Stephen Dillane.
Calling itself a “provocation” based upon Samuel Richardson’s controversial 1740 epistolary novel Pamela, which tells the story of a teenage maid seduced, raped and pressured into marriage by her master, Crimp’s play runs in the Dorfman Theatre until early March.
The hype has been hysterical, from the hugely oversubscribed ballot system the National Theatre employed to dole out tickets, to the feverish reports that one audience member in a preview performance fainted due to the play’s violent, sexual content.
But was Crimp’s play worth the wait? Do Blanchett and Dillane deliver the goods? Are the critics being rolled out on stretchers, or rolling their eyes in exasperation? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews…
Crimp, whose sizeable, decades-long corpus includes Attempts On Her Life and The Treatment, is undoubtedly one of the most significant living British playwrights. This new work, subtitled Twelve Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, sees a man and a woman play out a series of gender-fluid, sado-masochistic sex games in a suburban garage, surrounded by onlookers.
“Rather than adapting the novel, Crimp riffs on its themes,” explains Henry Hitchings (Evening Standard, ★★). “What does it mean to feel desire? How stable are the roles that we assume in relationships? Is pleasure always tinged with perversion? Is gender a performance?”
“Early reports suggested it might be the sort of violent shocker that causes audiences to faint,” he continues, “yet actually it’s no more outrageous than large swathes of post-watershed TV.”
“Crimp and Mitchell are clearly fascinated with power, the complexity of gender and identity, the social codes and constraints to which we are all subject,” writes Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★). “But this is arduous, opaque stuff and, given the calibre of everyone involved, a bit of a let-down.”
Most critics agree. Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★) calls it “a diagrammatic exploration of modern sexual mores shorn of any social context”, while Andrzej Lukoswki (Time Out, ★★★) labels it “a very peculiar play” about which he’s “not sure it ever says anything particularly penetrating”.
“What might have been a pleasingly knotty examination of gender and sexuality” is actually more like “a clammy piece of fanfiction” according to Alice Jones (iPaper, ★★), while Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★) confesses to being “alternately gripped, puzzled, bored and non-plussed” and Matt Wolf (New York Times) reckons the whole thing is “less torture, as it turns out, than torpor”.
Some are vituperative in their criticism, Mark Shenton (London Theatre, ★) calling it “a tedious waster of time”, Quentin Letts (Daily Mail) complaining that it’s “riper than a brown banana”, and Ann Treneman (Times, ★) writing that “most of this play is like listening to two drunk people at a bus stop shout at each other about who does most of the washing up”.
It’s only Holly Williams (Independent, ★★★★) and John Nathan (Metro, ★★★★) who have anything particularly positive to say. “Whatever is going on, the writing constantly intrigues, while also being surprisingly just quite fun,” writes Williams, while for Nathan, the play is “eerily, and disturbingly, convincing”. While for Hannah Greenstreet (Exeunt) the production is “more insightful as a critique of capitalism than a comment on sexual mores in the post-#metoo era.”
Most critics, though, agree with Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★): “Sex and violence have rarely seemed so dull.”
Or, as Veronica Lee (The Arts Desk, ★★) puts it: “It takes a special kind of badness to make Cate Blanchett lubing up a strap-on boring, but the National Theatre managed it.”
Cate Blanchett’s film roles are world-famous, but her theatre work is rarer. This is her first London stage appearance since Oleanna at the Barbican in 2012, and her first ever at the National.
Most critics think she’s excellent. “Blanchett is scorchingly good when her character is bored, angry or a man: sometimes imperious and imposing, sometimes terrifying and ludicrous as she rants away in her power-drunk male guise, that retina-searing charisma cranked up to the max,” describes Lukowski.
She “has an extraordinary capacity to shift vocal and physical registers” according to Billington, is “one of those simply magnetic performers” according to Williams, and has “remarkable presence” according to Cavendish.
But not excellent enough, apparently. “She puts her charisma and commitment entirely in the service of the play,” writes Crompton. “You can see why it appealed. She gets to change voices, to play the master as well as the servant, the man as well as the woman. She acts submissive and dominant, cringing and powerful, beautiful and ugly. She is terrific but it isn’t enough.”
Although finding small-screen fame in recent years thanks to a role in Game of Thrones, Dillane has a more comprehensive stage history than his co-star. He played Prior in the original National Theatre production of Angels in America, and won a Tony award for his role in Tom Stoppard’s The Real Thing in 2000.
And he’s a class act here, according to the critics. He’s “actually better” than Blanchett, writes Lukowski. “He can do the pompous egotistical sadist thing, but there’s always an air of desperate pitiable weakness there.”
“Urbane, deceptively light, at times absurdly patronising, he sails through the material,” lauds Williams, while Cavendish admires his “watchable quality of latent fragility” and Crompton praises him as “mesmeric, the slow treacle of his voice pulling you in”.
If a playwriting legend and two world-famous actors aren’t enough, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other also boasts a prolific, top-class director. Katie Mitchell is in the upper echelon of European auteurs, and she’s no stranger to shock tactics – her last play at the National, Sarah Kane’s Cleansed – had scores of faintings, not just one.
It seems, though, that this is not her finest work. Her production is “meticulously detailed, but stilted and far from erotic” for Hitchings, while Wolf writes of “a forensic power gone missing” and Lukowski finds that her “twitchy, febrile direction and a fine electronic score from Melanie Wilson give it a sense of depth” but that it’s “not sexy, really, which is perhaps a problem”.
But there’s a scattering of praise for designer Vicki Mortimer’s chilly garage set complete with Audi, though. It’s “wonderfully exact” for Treneman, “immaculately designed” for Tripney, and “quite cool” according to Jones, although Shenton does point out that it “doesn’t always make for easy sight lines”.
There’s also tips of the hat towards Jessica Gunning, who plays housekeeper Mrs Jewkes, the third leg of Blanchett and Dillane’s torturous triangle, but a lot of critics are uncomfortable with the way Crimp’s script pokes fun at her body.
“In the production’s most potent moment, she sings a song, rather beautifully, before kissing Blanchett’s Woman,” describes Tripney. “However, she also has to endure a lot of distasteful commentary about her body, which never feels entirely justified.”
Um, not really, no. Given the sky-high anticipation and particularly considering the class and calibre of the creatives involved, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is an enormous let-down. Reports of extreme violence and sex have been wildly over-egged, and the only reason audience members might faint turns out to be tedium.
There are scarcely any positive reviews, and only a few three-star ratings. Most critics one or two-star it. Neither Crimp’s play, nor Mitchell’s direction, are up to scratch is the consensus. It’s only Blanchett, Dillane and Gunning that can hold their heads high – three decent performances in a deeply disappointing show.