Sunday 17 February 2019

When We Have Sufficiently Tortured One Another at the National, or, We Are Listening to You. For Hours.

Note: This is a review of the performance on Monday 4th February 2019.

It was instructive to see this show the evening after Ian McKellen's mesmerising solo tour de force at the Bridge. This show also possesses fine performers in Cate Blanchett and Stephen Dillane, with a strong supporting turn from Jessica Gunning. Blanchett in particular delivers a mountain of text as compellingly as McKellen. Unfortunately there's a considerable gap between the poetry of such great writers as Shakespeare and Gerald Manley Hopkins, and the prose of Martin Crimp.

I'd previously seen a revival of a Crimp play at the Almeida and his two operatic collaborations with the composer George Benjamin, none of which did much for me. This text is considerably worse. We are in a garage in which a couple are playing sex games, with an audience of four. Who exactly the couple are, why they've taken to this peculiar kind of role playing, why on the theme of Pamela (this show is allegedly variations on Richardson's novel - not having read it I can't comment on to what extent that claim stacks up), and why on earth three of the quartet of watcher-participants are involved are all questions which struck me as pertinent but which Crimp never answers. He does belatedly indicate that the fourth watcher is being paid - which given what we are expected to accept that gentleman is subjected to suggests that the unemployment situation is far worse than I'd realised. In place of meaningful exploration of character or motive, or indeed plot that goes anywhere, all we get is endless talk. It was not clear to me what the message was or even if there was one. Occasionally a striking image leaps out from the verbiage, but mostly, despite the best efforts of the performers I just could not get interested in what was going on.
Then there's the sex and violence. Any Edinburgh International Festival regular over the last twenty years will find nothing new here. Mitchell has also visited this territory twice in London in recent years, with Cleansed at the National and in last autumn's dismal La Maladie de la Mort. As far as I was concerned there was nothing shocking or original about either element and, as with Cleansed, I felt increasingly distanced from the action.

As this dragged on into its second hour I occasionally closed my eyes, watched audience reactions, and looked wearily at my watch. I've seen worse at the Norris National, I've seen worse from Mitchell (the aforementioned La Maladie de la Mort). This is saved from those depths by the commitment and talent of the performers. But not even they, or indeed Vicki Mortimer's convincing recreation of a garage, could save this viewer from increasing boredom and longing for the thing to end. Do not queue for returns.

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