Well, whatever you say after being exposed to the sadomasochistic power games played out by Cate Blanchett’s and Stephen Dillane’s unnamed Woman and Man in this play, you can’t say you weren’t warned.
There were reports that someone fainted during one of the previews of playwright Martin Crimp’s newest work. And for those who didn’t see them, there are unmissable warning signs about this show’s explicit sex and violence posted at the two entrances to the National’s most intimate theatre, the Dorfman.
Crimp’s inspiration is Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel, Pamela. But Vicki Mortimer’s design of a garage attached to a wealthy suburban household is very 21st century. Much of this sterile building’s interior – its walls made from bare, grey breeze block – is taken up by a sleek Audi. Blanchett’s and Dillane’s Woman and Man enter the space that’s left like a couple of bank robbers accompanied by their gang just after a heist.
At first, everyone goes about their clearly delineated tasks in silent professionalism. The woman called Mrs Jewkes (Jessica Gunning) is apparently the man’s housekeeper. There are also two, apparently teenage, girls and a young man called Ross who may or may not be Mrs Jewkes’s nephew. Either way, his presence is later paid for and what happens in this room is done in the service of sexual gratification. But whose?
Control seems to be in the hands of the man, who pays lip service to notions of gender equality. But everyone in the room appears to be there at his behest. And the mystery that hovers over it all is to what extent – if any – Blanchett’s tense woman is there because of her own consent.
It would be a spoiler to reveal how the final scene answers that question. But having seen the show a few days ago, I can now say the imagery involuntarily sticks in the mind in the way someone else’s porn might if you came across it on public transport.
Up until that moment, everyone on stage devotes themselves to their roles, with the two central figures locked in a highly charged game of power. The woman seems to be at risk. But that assumption is shrouded in doubt after she contemptuously tells the man, “You’ve no more idea how to hurt me than you have how to give me pleasure.”
The play’s violence, reportedly taken down a notch from the level that caused the fainting, is not as bad as the production’s reputation suggests. On a scale up to 10 I’d say it only nudges seven. If that. But director Katie Mitchell, whose previous show on this stage was Sarah Kane’s horrifyingly violent Cleansed, is not one to flinch when it comes to conveying the darkest side of the human psyche. And the sexual imagery here makes Nicole Kidman’s 1998 appearance in The Blue Room – the last time such fuss was made about a female international film star appearing in a sexually provocative play – look about as shocking as a church sermon.
At times Crimps’ dialogue plunges down a rabbit hole of his protagonist’s memories – as tedious as an in-joke. And when it does, time moves slowly. But Mitchell’s production is always subverting theatrical convention. And the way its performances segue from the intentionally stilted to realism as the roleplay stops and restarts, is fascinating. Meanwhile, and despite the 18th-century inspiration, modern gender politics stands in mute judgment.
Dillane has the air of a civilised psychopath, while Blanchett superbly keeps us guessing as to the level of her character’s consent, later revealed in a scene that is unforgettable, whether you want it to be or not.