“I’m perfectly capable of making a sandwich,” scolds Cate Blanchett as she inches a sizeable strap-on inside her prostrate husband. It is an unexpected sight, but a stark piece of power play in an evening that’s full of them. Director Katie Mitchell serves up scenes from a marriage: two unbroken hours of sexual sadomasochistic role-play in a suburban garage where it’s never quite clear who’s in control — man or woman, husband or wife, sub or dom. It’s a clinical examination of the slippery, shifting nature of consent, and in particular, what it might mean to say “I do.”
“When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other” is a complex watch — a play that exists, almost entirely, in its subtext. As Blanchett and Stephen Dillane work their way through a series of explicit, violent sexual fantasies, consent is never simply spoken out loud. It’s implicit and, arguably, inconstant; communicated with a look, a smile, a gesture, even a fee. It is never absolute, nor black and white, but negotiated moment by moment. The game is to spot the ways its shifts as words and deeds slip out of sync.
For while Martin Crimp’s text is a loose, abstract adaptation of Samuel Richardson’s 1740 novel “Pamela” — a puzzle of a play that constantly rearranges itself. Mitchell treats it as a self-penned script in a couple’s slip-sliding sexual roleplay: Man and Woman, a middle-aged (married?) couple, act out a literary fantasy in a chilly garage.
In Richardson’s novel, a salacious bestseller, a teenage housemaid willingly marries her abusive employer, Mr B. Pamela brushes off his advances, evades an attempted rape, then accepts his proposal as his consenting wife. Mitchell’s modern scenario mirrors those blurred lines, as Blanchett and Dillane cycle through a series of BDSM scenarios including rape fantasies and torture fetish play. They take turns taking charge, swapping clothes as they switch between master and maid, masc to femme, as each takes turns to play Pamela. Everything’s performative – gender, violence, power, consent – and real at the same time.
Mitchell complicates every moment, turning each act into a question of consent. Sneaking in, mouths taped shut like hostages, the couple set up a karaoke machine and start to play. Is it their property? Are they trespassing or, even, under duress? When Dillane slices a scalpel across his partner’s forehead, she clutches his hip with a tender embrace that’s gently affirmative. Blanchet slams him down in a chair and mimes masturbating aggressively into his face. “Hit me,” she orders. “I’d rather be raped than bored.”
All this is scripted, scenes written on laptops and iPhones, but we never know who has ultimate authorship or control. Is this her fantasy or his, a sub or a dom’s? Something more mutual, or even imposed on them both? At what point do they stray of script or veer out of control, beyond established consent? Blanchett and Dillane give such precisely calibrated performances that a half smile can shift one’s sense of the entire situation. He swabs her down, gently, after slicing her open. She ushers him, silently, to force himself upon her. Both are as enthralling as they are inscrutable.
And what of the four youngsters hanging around on the edges, each handed a wodge of cash to play a supporting role? Two teenage girls dressed as pigtailed schoolgirls swap uneasy glances, and a stripped young buck steps in to offer his, ahem, services and take a brutal beating. What are the terms of their employment — or their exploitation? As in “The Maids” and “La Maladie de la Mort,” Mitchell’s fascinated by the interplay of capital and desire, sex and labor.
All voyeurism is a tedious thrill – or thrilling tedium. This is no different: at once startling and banal. The action itself is slow and stuttering, but the scenario’s riveting — laced with subtext, laden with history and loaded with threat. We know nothing of who these people are, save for the executive car and wine fridge they keep in their garage, but we’re privy to the intimacies of their sex lives. It’s a thrillingly pregnant scenario too. How on earth did this marriage, if indeed that’s what it is, come to this? Everything’s ripe with ritual and teeming with threat, and you’re braced for the moment where passions spill over, tempers spin out of control and someone ends up seriously hurt. This mix of the mundane and the macabre, tedium and knife-edge tension, takes exquisite skill.
Together, Mitchell and Crimp complicate the power dynamics, weaving a web of gender relations, seniority, authorship and financial clout. Brandishing a sandwich in one hand and a strap-on in the other, “When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other” begs the most slippery questions of consent.