When this production was first announced, excitement over the prospect of renowned director Katie Mitchell working with Hollywood star Cate Blanchett was so high that the National Theatre had to introduce a ticket ballot to cope with demand. But the results, while intermittently intriguing, are disappointing.
Martin Crimp’s play takes its inspiration from Pamela, Samuel Richardson’s epistolary 18th-century novel – a source of considerable scandal in its day – in which a teenage serving girl is pursued, imprisoned, dominated and eventually pressured into marriage by her master, Mr B.
Blanchett and Game of Thrones’ Stephen Dillane play a couple – Woman and Man – engaged in an elaborate, seemingly eternal sexual role play. They act out this game – if that’s what it is, for no one appears to take much pleasure in it – in a suburban garage, a chilly space of grey breeze blocks, immaculately designed by Vicki Mortimer, complete with an Audi in which, perhaps inevitably, they fuck. Four silent onlookers watch these encounters – three women, one man – occasionally participating, playing the parts of schoolgirls, bridesmaids and young stud.
The play is divided into 12 scenes, but though the lights are flicked on briefly between them, there isn’t much tonal variance. Sometimes she is Pamela and he is Mr B, sometimes they switch roles. At the beginning they’re both wearing French maids’ outfits. They take turns donning a blonde wig and both wear stockings and suspenders underneath their clothes.
In one scene, he tells her to crawl on the floor for a punnet of cherries. In another, she slathers her face with shaving foam. Later, she is fingered by a young man while wearing a wedding dress, and there is more vehicular bonking; eventually a strap-on is produced and utilised. There is also an awful lot of talking – talking about penetration, power, marriage. At one point Blanchett’s character says: “I’d rather be raped than bored.” To which, Dillane responds that no woman would ever say that. Later this same line emerges from his lips. This fluidity of roles is interesting, or at least it is to begin with.
Over the course of the two-hour, interval-less production, one of the onlookers, Jessica Gunning, becomes increasingly active in their games. Sometimes she takes on the guise of Mrs Jewkes, the complicit housekeeper in Richardson’s novel, and, in the production’s most potent moment, she sings a song, rather beautifully, before kissing Blanchett’s Woman. However, she also has to endure a lot of distasteful commentary about her body, which never feels entirely justified.
Melanie Wilson’s thrumming score, though initially hypnotic quickly becomes relentless and the sexual imagery all feels a bit 1980s Playboy. While the prominent car brings JG Ballard’s Crash to mind, and some of the reversals feel a bit Lynchian, there’s a distinct absence of eroticism.
Blanchett and Dillane give admirably committed performances. Gunning is equally good in her smaller role.
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. But this is arduous, opaque stuff and, given the calibre of everyone involved, a bit of a let down.