Galadriel and Stannis Baratheon screw around in 2 hours of kink, fetish and role-play.
It’s hard to avoid the whiff of slash-fiction when it comes to West End stunt-casting, and this is a humdinger. Already, this new play – When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other – is “the one where Blanchett wears a dildo”.
We’ve all sat through student theatre that tried to be edgy and relevant with sex, violence or a well-placed dildo. We’ve also all seen stunt-casting, where an otherwise lacklustre production partner with a “big name” in an attention-getting reach-around. Sufficiently Tortured has already been dismissed as another one of those; critics are delighting in wittily doing the play down, which is a shame, because although it’s not “enjoyable” in the strict sense, it is a production of enormous skill, which shouldn’t be dismissed out of hand.
The last time I saw Cate Blanchett on stage, it was in the Sydney Theatre Company’s revival of Hedda Gabler. She played opposite Hugo Weaving (another great pairing!) in what turned out to be an unimaginative, traditionally staged and costumed production that had very little to say other than: “Come see Cate Blanchett on stage! Give us your money!”
When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is a lot more than that. This is certainly a play with Relevance and a Message, one which Michael Billington of The Guardian finds to be all a bit obvious and arch, but that probably says more about the The Guardian Bubble than the play. Issues of consent, power and privilege (both economic and financial) are all in for examination. Some are opaque, some a bit laboured, but none of them are simple, which is half the point. Those seemingly with power are at times ridiculous, but the tables can turn in an instant. The melding of comedy with graphic sex and violence produces an intentionally uneven tone which sets the audience on edge; never sure where it’s all going or what will come next.
Does it run a bit long? At 100+ minutes without an interval I’ll confess to checking my watch at the halfway mark, but Matt Trueman has it right, that the occasional sense of tedium is inextricable from the glimpse into these “real lives”; it’s the thrilling tedium of our own act of voyeurism, which plays an equal part in the production. We – the audience – are complicit to all the goings on; without the voyeurs (whether on stage or ourselves), would Blanchett and Dillane’s unnamed couple (married? unmarried?) engage in their game at all? The performance is inextricable from the performed to.
Blanchett’s fearless commitment throughout the 100 minute run time is something to behold. Her mocking, impersonating monologue at the halfway mark erupts onstage like a percussion grenade that deserved an ovation to stop the show.
To miss that because some sneering reviewers are revelling in a less than accessible performance piece seems a shame to me.
And Stephen Dillane is with her all the way, veering wonderfully from panto-broad vowels to moments of absolutely naturalist self-doubt and disgust (?), just as Katie Mitchell’s Mrs. Jewkes is a revelation of a role, timid and commanding and every bit as haunting a presence as Mrs. Danvers. (Why is the housekeeper always a lesbian and always unrequited?)
That Blanchett dropped out of a staging of All About Eve to do this new play was disappointing. As Bette Davis fanboy, the idea of seeing Cate chew the scenery as Margot Channing is another bit of dream casting. But by opting to appear in this far more challenging role (challenging to perform and challenging to the audience), Blanchett has reminded us that she is a valiant (though not infallible) curator of her own career and that she remains one of the most astonishingly brave and original actors we have.
I’m not disappointed that I need to think about whether or not I’ve simply enjoyed a theatrical experience. Not all theatre should be truffles and hugs.
Don’t be dissuaded by those who find sadism, role-playing and kink tedious. Be excited that such an exciting troupe are exploring it and you’ve had a chance to see it!