When We Have Sufficiently Tortured Each Other

It was only towards the very end of last year that it was announced – or rather whispered, hidden away as it was somewhere in the list of actors always included in the National Theatre’s press releases on the upcoming season (it’s not very British to make a fuss!) – that the actress Cate Blanchett (her off of movies and stuff), was going to be breathing the same South Bank air as us mere mortals. And now here she is, kicking off Rufus Norris’ fifth (and possibly final, I assert without basis but hey, who knows) year in charge, and setting the stall for a year of theatre that we hope will offer more enthralling highs than appalling lows.

Much more pedestrian than it thinks it is.

This production has an air of the programming schizophrenia that we have become used to recently – where for example, two similarly treated Shakespeare texts can achieve such dramatically different responses across the board as to make one wonder if playing at the National has the same implied level of quality assurance to it any more. When you look past the glare of name in lights you see that she makes her debut in a new play that is based on / inspired or motivated by / justified of its own existence, by that tried and tested source of theatre; an eighteenth century epistolary book trilogy by Samuel Richardson about a wealthy landowner’s romantic pursuit of a young manservant named Pamela.

Yes, that’s “epistolary” as in written in the form of a series or letters, with no dialogue or interaction.

Yes, that’s the “Samuel Richardson” as in the printer who some say created the idea of novel as literary form with these books.

And yes, that’s “romantic pursuit” as in less Romeo, Juliet and balcony soliloquy love-y and more violence, kidnapping, forced marriage rape-y.

With all these ingredients, it’s just surprising that Pamela: The Musical hasn’t been gracing the West End for decades. Though I would place a safe bet that it may have provided many a student of Drama, Lit and Gender Studies with thesis source material.

So after the (somewhat surprising) Black Friday type rush for tickets – and the subsequent balloting process put in place to manage the demand to see this Eva Peron style saviour of the theatrical world we’d been waiting for-never for – should you still be punishing yourself if you’ve missed out so far? Are you missing a tour de force that the press is implying contains so much gratuitous sex and violence that St John’s Ambulance have doubled staffing to deal with the amount of audience fainting? (Side note: One woman, elderly, passing out whilst sitting in a dark theatre for the interval-free two hours doesn’t make such a great headline).

Well quite frankly, no. Stop metaphorically kicking yourself. Carry on with your life. If you’re desperate to have a National visit booked, I hear good things about Follies which is back in February. Alternatively, take up crocheting or do some sudoku. At least you will have learned something for the time you’ve invested. The reasons to avoid are endless but the top three…

One: Stephen Dillane is very very good.

Whilst Cate Blanchett may be the name to inspire your desire for a ticket (and she can act, no qualms there), it’s Dillane’s performance that makes you ok with staying. (Well, that and the fact that it’s difficult to escape without interval, without awkwardness.)

For the two hours the entire cast remain on stage, he creates a shadow around himself masking a character both painfully fragile and darkly terrifying. You sense he is losing control and constantly on the verge of explosion, without knowing how this explosion would manifest. And yet the touchpaper never reaches its destination. Which makes his performance all the more absorbing.

And that’s in spite of the fact that he and Blanchett constantly switch between playing the Lord and Pamela (or “mynamesnotPamela” to use the oft-repeated title), often mid sentence, usually whilst swapping the costume signifiers of his linen suit and hat and her French maid outfit. It’s a piss-poor, 101 device to highlight gender imbalance and gets tedious really quickly but highlights the reason that Dillane should appease any ticket mourning. Unlike Blanchett, Dillane does a lot of theatre in London. So it’s likely you will get the opportunity to see this talent in the not too distant future – but without having to waste two hours with nonsense like this.

Two: It’s more pretentious than the pretentious dinner party hosted by Mr and Mrs Pretentious as part of National Pretentious Week on Planet Pretentious.

Unless you’re one of the aforementioned Undergraduates – or the type of crushing bore who talks about the vintage of the grape whilst others drink the wine – its sense of self-importance is unlikely to gratify anyone other than the company. As intended. Perhaps not to be unexpected when the wordiness of the full title continues with the subheading 12 Variations on Samuel Richardson’s Pamela with the unspoken sneer Try and hashtag that you Twitter Proletariat Scum.

Is the setting of a garage complete with real car a sign this is a modern day group of semi-masochistic friends complicit in their re-enactment of the book? Is the occasional use of handheld mics distorting voices a metaphor for the workings of the inner mind? Is the gender swapping challenging society’s view of accepted behaviour of man versus woman? Who knows? Quite frankly, who the fuck has time to care?

Let’s face it. Critics are of course inverted snobs who were always going to be down on such star casting. It’s sold out – Friday Rush tickets still open of course – and if you want to go, then you’ll try and get tickets if you haven’t already. All the hooha and brouhaha has probably got a slightly wider audience talking about the National. And it’s given Cate Blanchett something good to put on her CV, fill some down time and talk to Graham Norton about. So it’s not like it’s an entirely bad thing I guess.

It’s just much more pedestrian than it thinks it is. And it’s not as if they haven’t tried very hard not to be. Blanchett’s ‘Not Pamela’ asserts early on that she would “rather be raped than bored” and whilst I’m not sure it should be such a binary choice, alleviating boredom requires more than closing a scene with her simulating anal penetration on him whilst speaking the words “I’m perfectly capable of making a sandwich.” Or are my expectations far too high?

Oh, reason three? Netflix has announced they will have the LOTR trilogy on their service from November 1st this year. So you can soon enjoy Cate Blanchett for nine hours whenever the mood takes you.

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

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★★★
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★★
Olivier Theatre

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★★★★
Lyttelton Theatre

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★★★★★
National Theatre Olivier

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★★★
National Theatre - Olivier

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★★

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Performances

Location

The Blurb

‘Go on then: lock the doors and see what happens. Show me how much power you really have.’

This new play breaks through the surface of contemporary debate to explore the messy, often violent nature of desire and the fluid, complicated roles that men and women play.

Using Samuel Richardson’s novel, Pamela, as a provocation, six characters act out a dangerous game of sexual domination and resistance.

The production reunites Martin Crimp (Attempts on her Life, In the Republic of Happiness) and director Katie Mitchell (Waves, Cleansed). Cate Blanchett makes her National Theatre debut alongside Stephen Dillane, who returns to the National Theatre for the first time since The Coast of Utopia in 2002.

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