Martin Crimp’s new and challenging play came to the National in a flurry of fuss, with Cate Blanchett choosing to make her debut there rather than playing Margo Channing in All About Eve in the West End.
Tickets were available by ballot and day seating, and reviews decidedly mixed, but with one more week to run, is this play worth the bother?
Blanchett and Stephen Dillane play Woman and Man, who enter a garage in maid’s outfits and fishnets, with four observers, sticky tape across their mouths, changing clothes in dark corners.
Are they a couple? It isn’t clear. At first, as they clamber into a car and start their verbal roleplay (with awkward handheld microphones to amplify their chat), the effect is cringeworthy, as he entones that she ‘is a child’ and he ‘has the power’.
As both play with gender role and Dom-sub roles, dressing and undressing and assuming different vocal tones and power balances, the play warms up. He slices a scalpel across her forehead and slaps a bit of exposed bottom. She crawls for cherries and makes comments like ‘I’d rather be raped than bored’, which is later said by him.
There’s sex play of various types, in the car, against it, commanding an observer to finger her, the brief but infamous strap-on scene, the perfunctory penetration while family matters, real or imagined, are discussed.
The role play feels a lot more Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf than Pamela, and the fat jokes aimed at Jessica Gunning’s Mrs Jewkes feel unnecessarily cruel. This couple are unequal as Blanchett slides into her dominance just as easily as she does into Dillane’s suit and psyche.
He may slather his face with lipstick as she lathers hers with shaving cream, but she is the one with the sexual upper hand.
Both are hot and attractive, and there is magnetic chemistry here, but I didn’t believe her kitten voice or her hand under Dillane’s foot for a second. Watch as he puts the final touches to her bridal dress and shoes, and when she teases the boy Ross into danger.
For all the blood, sex and low-key abuse, is this shocking? Not really. It’s consensual non-consent for the masses. She sprays ‘child’ on the car windscreen in foam, but it doesn’t take much for him to turn on the wipers to obliterate it. The ‘girls’ could be much more central, but they flutter on the periphery, no matter.
When the doors are unlocked and the visitors have left, she and he will make the tea, maybe, and feed the cat. Or go to their own houses and mundane lives, having had their furtive little knee-tremble. So furtive he can’t even enjoy putting on her stockings, as Jewkes does that before getting the kiss she’s sought.
Never boring, exactly, there’s nothing here to frighten the horses. Katie Mitchell’s direction seems to have got the best out of her actors, but go to a fetish club or find other plays like Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking for real shocks.
Photo credits: Stephen Cummiskey