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STAGE REVIEW: Tortured by a playwright

Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane in When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other. Picture: Stephen Cummiskey 2019 - Credit: Archant

The new play starring Cate Blanchett is as torturous as its name is long, writes TIM WALKER.

One of the reasons I love going to the theatre more than ever is that in this age when virtually every aspect of our lives involves staring at a computer screen, 
it is about the only time, outside of a major sporting event, when a group of souls come together and get to share something with each other. It’s amazing when it works out, but, my goodness, it upsets me when theatre gathers us all together pointlessly, as I think it encourages us to withdraw still further within ourselves.

So it never gives me pleasure to write a bad review, but what, honestly, can one say about When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other, beyond that it is a tortuous experience for audiences, a tortuous waste of the time of its star 
Cate Blanchett and a tortuously long title for a play?

WWHSTEO – even the National Theatre press office couldn’t be bothered to write it out in full – is all about kinky sex and how Man (yes, there are playwrights like Martin Crimp who still think it’s novel to name a character in this way) wants to dominate Woman (Crimp is nothing if not predictable) and the intention is clearly to shock audiences with a lot of cross-dressing, gratuitous violence, flashes of various body parts and casual humiliation in the hope it stops them noticing that the play otherwise has nothing at all to say.

Blanchett plays the latter role and Stephen Dillane the former, with varying degrees of grace under pressure. There are subsidiary characters played by Craig Miller, who has a six-pack and gets to have his head rammed down hard against the bonnet of an Audi. There is also a character played by Jessica Gunning, who gets to be abused on account of the fact she is overweight.

It is easy as a theatregoer to get angry with all concerned when a play is as bad as this one, but it’s necessary to consider the actors and ask are they doing as well as they can, against all the odds? Broadly speaking, I would say that all of them are. Even Blanchett – woefully ill-advised to make her National Theatre debut in this production – looks sometimes as if she even genuinely thinks the show is important.

Crimp, who wrote this, needs to understand that theatre-goers are not so easily shocked these days. Once just a lot of four-letter words would do the job, then explicit sex was called for. I’m not sure what would do it these days. At least a decade ago, I sat in the Royal Court Theatre and saw a couple of guys on the stage in drag making out with great enthusiasm and I happened to look behind me and saw an old lady – maybe in her eighties – yawning. For me that was the most revealing moment of the whole evening.

This is the National trying to get down to the lowest common denominator and failing miserably because it has failed to move with the times, and, what is worse, committed a cardinal sin. That has nothing at all to do with sex, but everything to do with being boring.