Blanchett makes a phenomenal National Theatre debut alongside co-star Stephen Dillane in this dark but disorientating production exploring gender roles – ★★★½

It’s understandable to see why the details of When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other have remained somewhat enigmatic. A play heavily reliant on the shock factor, a detailed synopsis would no doubt undermine the production, and its ability to get you thinking.

Cate Blanchett delivers a powerful performance despite a clumsy and confusing narrative. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

Taking inspiration from Samuel Richardson’s novel Pamela (about a manipulative relationship between a maid and their master), Crimp uses the 18th century novel as a prompt for an entirely new production – one which is timely and fitting as the debate around gender roles continues.

Staged in the National’s Dorfman Theatre, the level of intimacy is profound and unsettling. Navigating the garage in which the play is set (in addition to scenes in a black car), Stephen Dillane and Cate Blanchett deliver powerful performances – both as individuals and as a duo – in what is a small-scale set from Vicki Mortimer.

It opens with Dillane and Blanchett in a black car on-stage. Director Kate Mitchell (Cleansed) addresses the immediate sound issue inside with microphones – an imaginative solution which could well have been a subtle metaphor for a man and woman’s voice. In such a confined space, the pair’s acting is gripping, immediately striking the haunting tone in Crimp’s introduction.

Not long afterwards, the characters begin to experiment with their identities and personalities (often through the use of wigs and costume changes) and it’s here where the play’s main narrative deconstructs. What could have been another brilliant metaphor for individuals assuming different characteristics associated with gender is instead poorly executed and hard-to-follow. Mitchell’s direction takes what could be a raw and unsettling exploration into a scattered and clumsy series of sexual acts. Blanchett and Dillane’s incredible on-stage rapport certainly compensates for the play’s flaws – but only just.

Gritty, sinister and uniquely shocking in nature, it’s clear that When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other leaves a lot for the audience to digest. Some may well argue that this is a sign of good theatre, but what isn’t so clear, however, is whether it comes from a place of shock, confusion, or both.

This review is of a preview performance. When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other is now playing at the Dorfman Theatre until 2 March.