When is a hit show not a hit show? The National Theatre certainly had no trouble selling seats for this one. In fact, so sought-after were tickets that they were distributed via a lottery. Those who didn’t snag one that way resorted to the returns queue, which began as early as 5 a.m., despite bitter winter weather. It probably wasn’t the thrill of seeing a new play by Martin Crimp, master of terse poetry and disturbing imagery, that prompted those dedicated punters to don their thermals and settle in for a long, potentially fruitless wait. Nor were they necessarily enthusiasts of director Katie Mitchell, whose intensely cerebral productions often have a chilly precision and a glacial pace. No, the big attraction was the star name, Cate Blanchett, and rumours that Crimp’s play was crammed with explicit sex and violence didn’t hurt either. Reports, during previews, of an audience member fainting in shock ramped up the hype still further. Then came opening night – and the reviews. The reaction of the press ran the narrow, anticlimactic gamut all the way from irritable dislike to meh. One of the most anticipated openings of the new theatrical year seemed to shrivel into insignificance. Tickets suddenly began to trickle back into circulation.
So, what went wrong? Now that the feeding frenzy has abated, two things seem clear. First, expectations were not met. But second, that’s not entirely the fault of Crimp or Mitchell – and certainly not of Blanchett. Her most diehard fans, most of them familiar with her work on the cinema screen rather than the stage, would have gone to see her in anything. It was quite obvious on the night that I attended that some of the audience had no idea what they were in for. Others – many critics included, I suspect – assumed they’d get a sensationalist, experiential rollercoaster ride. Instead, they were presented with two hours of often rather dry dialectic, and although Mitchell’s production has an aura of nastiness, it’s unlikely it would shock anyone who’s switched on their TV after 9 p.m. Actually, there are sequences in the play that present some interesting issues around performance, identity, desire, relationships and trust. Still, there is, undeniably, a problem: We’ve heard, and seen, it all before.
Crimp’s play feels as if it were written in the 1990s, at the height of a wave of new British writing that included, among others, Mark Ravenhill, Sarah Kane, Anthony Neilson and Jez Butterworth. It has a certain brutal force, a fondness for the explicit, a fractured lyricism. The difficulty is that its gender politics feel similarly dated. Sexual role-playing, sex as power, women on top in trouser suits and men submissive in stockings – those are all here, along with the hoarier and more enduring mainstream-entertainment tropes of women cut and bleeding, women humiliated, women trembling with fear.
Painstakingly designed by Vicki Mortimer, it all unfolds in and around a shiny Audi – itself a whopping phallic symbol – in a garage adjoining what we sense is a smart, spacious home. Each sequence in the sado-masochistic game is divided from the next when one or other of the two main participants – Blanchett’s Woman or Stephen Dillane’s Man – switches on the punishing overhead strip lighting. There are onlookers, too – a shuffling group of three younger women and a man who at first wear tape over their mouths, and who we sense are all being paid for their participation. There’s a routine weariness to their participation. And there are many moments of slippage between the fantasy and reality – dropped cues; lines forgotten accidentally, or, out of boredom or spite, accidentally-on-purpose; urgent sotto voce offers to abort or offer medical assistance.
Crimp’s inspiration is Samuel Richardson’s 1740 epistolary novel Pamela, in which a servant is repeatedly threatened with seduction (for which read “rape”) by her master, successfully resists, and is ultimately rewarded with marriage to her socially superior abuser. So here, the action culminates with a mock wedding, after which Blanchett as the bride dispenses with her virginal white veil to strap on a dildo and prepare to give Dillane a thorough doggy-style seeing-to. One of the voyeurs (Jessica Gunning), dressed as a U.S. cop complete with nightstick, also stands in for Richardson’s fictional housekeeper, Mrs Jewkes, who in the book is complicit in her employer’s ghastly scheme. Dillane interrogates Gunning, “Why are you so fat?” before explaining to her, as if to an idiot, “It’s because you’re poor.” It’s a sequence that is an ugly reminder, in this sexual arena, of the savage cruelties of the hierarchy of economics and class. Interestingly, it’s probably the single most shocking moment of the evening.
What does it all add up to? Not, in the final analysis, enough. Blanchett and Dillane are both superb, her swooping, velvet-voiced, from elegant hauteur to psuedo-Barbie flirtation to pinstriped, banker-boy dick-swinging, him a sadistic torturer, an overbearing pedagogue, or finally a whimpering wreck, cross-dressed and emasculated. Yes, such stereotypes persist, infecting our notions of what is male, what female, and damaging us all – men, women, children. Yes, theatre is reliably an effective space for examining performative behaviour – and gender roles are performative. But we already knew that. Our darker desires, our dysfunction, our groping towards an understanding of who we are and what we want and how we might, without shame or degradation, make one another happy (or at least less unhappy) – these are itches we’ll continue to scratch, wounds we will obsessively probe. This production, while it often deals with ugliness, is glossy, stylish – and insubstantial. It lays before you an eyeful of calculated kink and leaves you with a headful of questions, but its heart is empty.