FringeReview UK 2019
When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is directed at the National in the Dorfman, by Katie Mitchell. Designed by Vicki Mortimer as a one-set garage, lit by James Farncombe, with costumes by Sussie Juhlin-Wallen. With low-key sound and composition by Melanie Wilson it features one song by Raold van Oosten in Scene IX. Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown provide fight direction.
The conjunction of avant-garde theatre with star billing is rare enough for celebration whatever the outcome, and at the National too. Nothing Martin Crimp essays is never going to be comfortable, will always provoke disquiet.
Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane inhabit this work as though built round them, provoking registers of their own. Blanchett shifting roles in a gamut of chest registers, is vocally outstanding too. Both actors hurl themselves into this work. Over its two hours straight you can’t fail to be absorbed in their absorption.
Tales of preview faintings though are incomprehensible. It’s as if we were being subjected to a re-run of when director Katie Mitchell was last here (also at the Dorfman) for Sarah Kane’s Cleansed in March 2016, to which violent play she added violence of her own, not there in Kane’s text. Though Mitchell adds a few twists this text doesn’t have, though presumably with Crimp’s blessing, When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, subtitled ‘12 Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela’, isn’t horrific at all.
It’s an interrogation of sexual behaviour, including that of the most ritualised kind including role-reversal and employing people to act in BDSM games when they themselves get savagely beaten. In comparison with King Lear and Titus Andronicus, much early modern and very modern work, this is mild stuff. No regular theatre-goer – as opposed to star-gazer – will blanch.
But how to get at it, and its refractive use of Richardson’s 1740 novel of fifteen-year-old’s Pamela’s abduction, attempts on her virtue, and finally her taming the beast into marriage? Here it’s two consenting adults playing at abduction, the car-coach, the confining garage, slaps, ritual maids’ uniforms both wear, the attendants and role-reversals that throw shafts of light on an occlusive ritual we’re voyeurs of. It’s two people playing through scenes of a relationship ending in marriage and aftermath, or indeed playing at scenes from their actual marriage.
Blanchett as Woman and Dillane as Man tick through dominatrix roles where Blanchett’s low drawl cuts through as Dillane frays his baritonal burr to near-whimper. If there’s more pathos invested in the latter as well as the fractured impotence of Man’s commands, Woman’s dominating the discourse both as sullen submissive and Mistress gives her an inevitable rasp ahead. And her quotable gestures around gender – in IV Woman now the master addressing ‘Pamela’ keeps interpolating ‘he said’ – inflect an alien touch unique to her.
Designed by Vicki Mortimer as a superbly detailed one-set garage it includes a central aisle of tools (oops) an Audi and is topped with rafters. It’s lit by James Farncombe featuring neon strips and other more tenebrous effects. Costumes by Sussie Juhlin-Wallen feature a bewildering finery of wedding clothes for bride and groom where the joke about brides stripped if not bare isn’t lost in text or act. With low-key sound and composition by Melanie Wilson it features one song by Raold van Oosten in Scene IX. Rachel Bown-Williams and Ruth Cooper-Brown provide their habitually sterling fight direction.
Programme essays on feminism and Crimp’s reflections on self-betraying intimacy take us through critical subtext, but don’t tell us quite why these characters sing. Or write. Here Crimp, appreciative of how Richardson’s epistolary novel inscribes the skin of recipient as well as writer, has the Man’s impotently ordering Woman to curtail her writing on an iPad. He tries appropriating it as something approved or dictated. Phut.
It’s as teasingly cerebral as slices of an MRI scan, so mercurial you can see the stuff glistering along the set’s garage floor. Even the two central characters keep morphing within their gender, along with Jessica Gunning’s superb Mrs Jewkes the imprisoning housekeeper – that’s more in Richardson’s Pamela, mind. Like those bulls in the field that keep Pamela confined, yet aren’t bulls.
Those who know Crimp won’t be surprised at those twelve variations, the polygon-angled approach, faceted with Crimp’s singular lighting. It’s not just there from Attempts on Her Life in 1997, through to the tripartite In the Republic of Happiness of 2012. Crimp’s famed for turning absurdist somersaults in geometrically precise ways.
But it’s the latest opera libretti he’s written for George Benjamin, both set in medieval times – the desperately beautiful Written on Skin from 2013, and Lessons in Love & Violence about Edward II last year that tell you something more, and I wonder if that’s what we have here. Though Crimp usually supplies music now (Raold van Oosten also wrote for The Republic) it’s sustained music this piece evokes.
Admittedly little in this latest speech-heavy text suggests Crimp’s romanticism – which Written on Skin pulses with. Benjamin’s music is where Crimp hides his lyricism; and whereas the tenor of this work might suit composer Gerald Barry better (his hilarious but faithful Importance of Being Ernest) Crimp’s logic here is musical.
We get a narrative – abduction to marriage and six years after – and scenas and insert arias from it too. The twelve tableaux are jerkily static – there’s two versions of Scene IX if Pamela deigns to have a bath (pretty difficult and exposingly cold in a garage set).
Either way Mrs Jewkes is allowed to admire her, and increasingly through the play Gunning’s character is allowed a sly agency, openly admiring then sexually so, till it’s not over even when she sings van Oosten at the wedding.
Craig Miller’s Ross isn’t allowed more dialogue than the occasional forced articulation from the he-who-gets-slapped kind, baring a superb torso; and whilst bloody invited to snog (and far more) Blanchett’s Woman at her behest and Man’s consent. Quite what Girls 1 and 2 can add to the cast except catch wedding bouquets is too oblique and Emma Hindle and Babirye Bukilwa have ungenerously little to do here.
When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other might twist a wry smile from those who emerge complaining, as this writer heard even students doing. But as part of Crimp’s continuing attempt to force us awake, out of sleepwalking through what we think as intimacy, it writes something flinching yet heroic on the skin. Whether as yet indelible, only a revival might tell. This cast’s exemplary dedication deserves watching for their sheer performative belief; enough reason to go.