A Fresh Examination of When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other at the National Theatre
James Witherspoon reviews the ridiculously popular When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other at the National.
It may only be January, but When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other feels like a sure-fire bet for 2019’s Hottest Theatre Ticket™. The production unites legendary actor Cate Blanchette, storied provocateur Katie Mitchell (honestly, people still won’t shut up about Cleansed), and prolific playwright Martin Crimp at the National’s most intimate venue, the Dorfman (450 seats) for a limited run of just over a month. The sheer talent, mystery, and exclusivity behind this arrangement meant that tickets weren’t even released for general sale: instead, wannabe audience members had to enter a ballot last October to be eligible to even pay for a seat.
The frenzy reached fever-pitch when, just days into its opening, stories of audience members fainting, graphic sex and violence, and Blanchette sporting a strap-on flooded the press. And yet, as demand for tickets peaked, there was nothing to give – the play had been sold out for three months. Unfortunately for Crimp and Co, the reception from their small pool of viewers has been mixed, with audience members taking to Twitter to decry an ‘incomprehensible’, ‘impenetrable’ piece of work, and press night not faring much better. Nevertheless, I forced myself up to stand outside the National at 5:30am to wait four miserable hours in the freezing cold with a bunch of other shivering hopefuls until the box office opened at 9:30. The things I do for art… but was it worth it?
In a word, yes.
A suburban garage. An unnamed, wealthy couple (Blanchette and Dillane) act out a shape-shifting sadomasochistic fantasy that springboards from a laptop copy of Samuel Richardson’s early English novel Pamela in 12 sequences. They have hired four others to aid them in this game – an overweight woman playing the authoritarian Mrs Jewkes (Jessica Gunning), a muscular young man playing the working-class handyman Ross (Craig Miller, perhaps representing Richardson’s Mr. Williams), and two unnamed women playing schoolgirls (Emma Hindle and Babirye Bukilwa).
The garage lights (everything is ambient, how very Mitchell) act as the conduit between fantasy and reality – switched on in between scenes, and off during the acting – and a permanent question mark hangs over just how different the couple really is from their role-play. So begins a two-hour long explanation of modern gender roles and sexuality that evades easy categorisation at every turn.
Initially, both characters wear the same outfit: a French maid costume, although their respective genders are asserted through dialogue. He calls her Pamela and proclaims his ultimate power over her mind and body. She refutes the name (the background context of Richardson’s work demarcates Pamela as a defamatory label more so than a title). With increasing frequency, the couple chop and change their roles – we’re eased in with costume changes, but gradually the dialogue is the only reliable source of gender and power, even construing ‘Pamela’ as a sort of gender-neutral submissive designation. This makes for fantastically compelling viewing – challenging the roles we play in modern relationships in increasingly surprising ways.
Yet the threads of the play run much deeper than this. There’s a sort of spectral sense when watching When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other that woman is controlled from up high by man – even reminding us that Samuel Richardson’s female narrative was. of course, written by a male. In one particular sequence man, playing Mr. B, forces Pamela to rewrite her letters in order to convey non-existent fascination and love with her assaulter.
When the two schoolgirls become involved, they talk down to woman as man’s mistress, taunting her with the idea that she isn’t really in control of her narrative – that her perceived intellectual superiority means nothing in this world – and you see a magnesium flash of doubt across Blanchette’s face. Time and time again, woman takes a superlative verbal victory over man – tongue-twisting him into submission – but then the lights flicker on and off and she’s back on her knees, submissively crawling to eat cherries from between his feet. She has dreams where she chains herself up without even being asked. She doesn’t herself believe (she tells herself) that she is being controlled by forces outwith her reach – what do we think?
The spectral presences of Ross and Ms Jewkes, which had until now lingered in the shadows of the garage, emerge into the limelight as commentaries on late-stage capitalism. The middle-class Mr B lords his power over the working-class Ross and Jewkes as if he owns them; but he displays metrosexual, often feminine traits and feels threatened by his partner. Ross is muted by this subjugation – head hanging like an obedient puppy whenever man decides to wield his authority like a claw hammer. And yet Ross is a paragon of traditional masculinity: a handyman, a ripped physique, and a primal instinctual sexuality. Does wealth alter gendered behaviour?
One gets the sense that Dillane’s character is himself afraid of Ross – insecure about his own masculinity in the wake of a traditional ‘man’. And so, like the ouroboros, their joint insecurities consume each other – although man is the one with the power, and in the dynamic violence which populates the play (Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown do a spectacular job orchestrating ruthless, realistic looking punch ups), the muscular Ross is as vulnerable as a young child to his weaker, older aggressor. In the realm of fantasy, Mr B and Pamela use and abuse the working classes to their heart’s content; in reality, the middle-class man and woman have hired four (presumably working-class) participants to be subjected to all sorts of humiliation – including vicious beatings – for their enjoyment, and a sum of cash that likely means nothing to them. Fantasy often reflects our true selves.
And so on and so forth. This is a bitter play, where words are fired across the void of a cold garage with the force of bullets from an assault rifle. “Why are you so fat?” man snaps at Mrs. Jewkes, before interrupting her answer to proclaim “You are fat because you are poor”. Every innocent line is a veiled threat or challenge – woman exclaims “I’d rather be raped than bored” to audience gasps, and then uses that statement against man once their genders have flipped. It’s exhausting, but thrilling, watching these characters play such a skilful game of chess weaving through reality and fantasy.
Regrettably, though, the play is around 20 minutes too long, and at around the 1hr40 mark, it does begin to drag. Sequences that had profound meaning, or which crackled with dramatic energy begin to feel rather aimless and lacking in momentum. It’s a shame because it’s at this point where the show should really reach its (ahem) climax, with a bitter wedding scene that weaves together several strains from the past 90 minutes with a misconceived song (yes, really) from Ms Jewkes. The last ten minutes or so are a fantastic return to form, but one can’t help but wish that Mitchell had been tighter in the editing.
Crimp’s text has a true hamartia, though: it’s that without a surface knowledge of Pamela, the audience may begin to find themselves adrift in a sort of brutalist concrete sea of bitching and joyless fucking. Awareness of the novel’s plot and significance to both the English language and the feminist movement makes this play relatively straight-forward to understand in the narrative sense, as well as adding pathos to some of the thematic energy (especially in a scene which re-interprets the famous ‘bulls in the field’ sequence of Pamela). I don’t wish to be presumptuous, but I can’t help but think that the negative reaction that this play has sometimes produced – particularly in the case of the slew of reviews calling it ‘opaque’ or ‘impenetrable’ or any such descriptor – comes down to ignorance of the source material.
There are, of course, many other reasons why you might dislike When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other. It is a cold, cerebral piece of work – mostly devoid of emotion and certainly suffering from a drought of optimism. It’s tricky and ambiguous: never laying its thematic or narrative cards on the table as more mainstream-friendly plays might. It is not a show that can be taken passively: it must be engaged with, toyed with, challenged by the viewer concurrent with its very performance. But these things also mean that the text is one that has deep respect for the audience: one that never stoops to patronise or to implant ideologies, one that trusts the viewer’s intelligence and ability to come to their own conclusions. But these are not reasons to give a one-star review, or to proclaim that it is nonsense – this is not a one-star piece of work, and it is certainly not nonsense.
Nevertheless, the main draw of the play is, of course, Cate Blanchette. In When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, Blanchette’s performance is so nuanced, so utterly mesmerising, that I was completely spellbound for the complete two hours of the play. At one point, woman’s mood snap-changes from joy to sadness, and I felt a profound wave of genuine melancholy wash over me, such was the strength of Blanchette’s portrayal. She is, of course, the perfect choice to play this character – much has been made of her work on gender-ambiguous territory, and she absolutely chews scenery in this piece of work which would be benefited by a Bowie-type personality. One almost feels sorry for the fantastic, lucid Stephen Dillane and the expressive Craig Millar and Jessica Gunning. Their performances are all absolutely wonderful, and in any other play they could have been highlights, but Blanchette’s performance shines so bright that it’s hard to see the people that orbit around her. Less convincing are the rather wooden stints put in by Emma Hindle and Babirye Bukilwa, although their lines are mercifully short.
A key component of why all this is so superlatively good is Vicki Mortimer’s set. The intimacy of the Dorfman rewards realistic, immersive staging, and the cold, authentic garage is just that. There’s even an actual Audi taking up the left-hand side of the stage, and it’s used five or six times during the performance. When the play begins, the roll-up doors at the back of the garage open to let the characters in and then shut. Behind them we see a wall and a realistic suburban nightscape. These small features ground the play in reality, and really give a sense that this could be real. Similarly, Melanie Wilson’s sound design overlays the entire production with a constant level of ominous ambient music that suggests danger at every turn – the constant threat of violence hangs over every action of our main characters.
So, is it worth a four-hour wait in the freezing cold? If you value a slew of intense, memorable performances, on a beautiful set, in an intimate, personal environment, and you aren’t afraid of a challenging piece of work that will trust you to draw your own conclusions, then absolutely yes. This is an ominous, thought-provoking, masterful piece of work that probes some of the most sensitive, nuanced aspects of our daily lives – you just have to listen.
When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other: 12 Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela is playing at the National until March 2.
Production and feature photograph by Stephen Cummiskey.