LONDON — There’s been a gathering head of steam about “When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other,” the Martin Crimp play that returns Cate Blanchett to the London stage for the first time in nearly seven years.
Tickets have been impossible to come by for this sold-out production, which opened Wednesday night at the National Theater and runs through March 2. (You either get in by ballot or by standing in line for returns — or not at all.) To add to the anticipatory fever, the word during previews was of an evening so startlingly in-your-face that one spectator had fainted because of the play’s extreme scenes of sex and violence. There were warning signs in the foyer.
Alas, the reality — hardly for the first time in the theater — proves something less exciting: so much so, in fact, that the advance noise feels like a conscious ploy to generate controversy. Mr. Crimp’s play, directed by Katie Mitchell, comes dressed up with modern themes aplenty, but these barely register. It feels like a staged conceit, not an exploration of character.
Yes, you get spatterings of blood, some unconvincing stage violence, and numerous sex acts. The final scene finds the twice Oscar-winning Ms. Blanchett lubricating a strap-on dildo which she is preparing to use on her (excellent) co-star, Stephen Dillane, as the curtain falls.
But for all the multiple provocations of this riff on a 1740 novel — Samuel Richardson’s pace-setting “Pamela” — that was a literary sensation in its day, the play amounts to lots of thematic and anti-erotic posturing. You’ve got everything here except what matters most: a reason to engage. The play’s very subtitle, “12 Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela,” suggests a doctoral thesis in progress.
The prevailing flatness of the production, which runs two hours without an intermission, certainly comes as a surprise. Mr. Crimp and Ms. Mitchell, whether working separately or together, are among the British theater’s most prominent provocateurs and have gained a considerable following on the Continent, where their maverick sensibilities have found a welcoming home. But Mr. Crimp’s distinguished works — his recently revived play “The Treatment” included — tend to ensnare playgoers far more than this, while Ms. Mitchell at her best — in the work of Chekhov, for instance — displays a forensic power gone missing here.
Ms. Blanchett, in turn, can be relied upon to surprise. Though attached during its initial phases to the imminent London stage version of the classic 1950 film “All About Eve,” the actress ceded the star part in that play to Gillian Anderson so she could work with Mr. Crimp on this production.
She and Mr. Dillane work their way tirelessly through the play’s many role and gender reversals, in which the actors trade clothes, wigs, makeup and, at one point, bodily fluids. The pair are attended to by a four-strong supporting cast who seem to exist mostly as objects of desire or scorn. It’s disconcerting to see the gifted Jessica Gunning repeatedly derided because of her character’s weight, whereas the lithe, toned Craig Miller spends large portions of the play with his torso bared. (Ms. Blanchett’s ever-egalitarian Woman, as she is billed in the text, gets to kiss them both.)
Set in a garage in and around an onstage Audi which the actors clamber in and out of for a bit of canoodling, the play has barely got going before topics of feminine guile, male hegemony and even capitalist misrule are firing this way and that. “I’d rather be raped than bored,” announces a mock-petulant Pamela in a seemingly idle remark that is returned to later without properly detonating either time.
What are we to make of all this? You could certainly argue that emotional investment isn’t the point. You feel the whiff of a #MeToo dynamic to some of the exchanges, and there’s no doubt that an initially subservient Ms. Blanchett can give as good as she gets.
But the fact is, there’s very little within the playacting and gamesmanship that hasn’t been voiced more expressively by, among many others, Jean Genet, whose play “The Maids” was a recent stage vehicle for Ms. Blanchett. You begin to tire after a while of the seeming randomness of events, as the leads appear dressed in maids’ outfits or wedding gear or in complementary black lingerie that directly entices Mr. Dillane to fondle his co-star’s bottom — and so he does on cue.
“I’m not trying to say anything more than I’m actually saying,” Ms. Blanchett protests at one point. By then, all the hullabaloo surrounding this play has devolved into a sigh of “So what?”: less torture, as it turns out, than torpor.