THE MISTRESS CONTRACT Royal court SW1

NEUROTIC OLD LOONS OR GENDER PIONEERS?
         There’s a central metaphor:  staring through the glass walls of her elegant West California apartment a woman says “It’s a desert masquerading as a garden”.   So, frankly, is the life she has designed.  Abi Morgan’s 90-minute two-hander  is based on a book by an American couple , now 88 and 93 years old,  who thirty years ago (both divorced and in a fractious relationship)  signed a selfconscious contract:  he should provide her with a home and income, in return for “mistress services..all sexual acts as requested with suspension of historical, emotional, psychological disclaimers”. They would tape their conversations so as to throw light on gender politics in a changing world.
    So here’s Saskia Reeves, with no-nonsense lank greying hair, specs, a mannish jacket but flirty high boots,  as “She” ,  immersed in Friday ‘n French 1970‘s women’s-group polemic.  He (Danny Webb)  is a forever on planes:  affluent, arrogant, priapic, cocksure.  The first ten minutes consist of her moaning about his taste for blow-jobs and spitting out lines like “I have nowhere to put my feminism”.  She demands the contract, which she thinks is liberating.   He sorts out the apartment and hires a boy to clean the pool. She gives him lifts from the airport, repetitive sexual services and endless lectures.
    But face it:  this is all more about  narcissistic intellectual privilege than anything of wider import. He is rich enough to keep her like some bygone playboy or French President;   most couples accept that both must contribute,  and have to work out their sexual agreement and suppress their irritations. So for a while,  this pair evoked nothing more than the old Irish saying “Thank the Lord,  they won’t spoil two houses”.   She in particular is prone to absurdities so cruelly funny that one suspects the playwright of having a laugh:  she condemns prostitution while effectively having formalized it,  and brings home a ridiculous  article by her favourite feminist maven opining that heterosexuality is unnatural and the primal physical relationship is lesbianism because girls bond with their mothers. (What about little boys eh? Oedipus schmoedipus!…).  She also reveals in passing that her “sanity was questioned” in  a custody hearing, and is miffed when her daughter’s fiancé fails to ask about her life  because in some societies “mothers are goddesses”.
 Pace  Carol Hanisch, the personal is not always the political: not when the person involved is so neurotic.  She says about the tapes that she is “everywoman” but she isn’t: and  the real interest of the play is in the individuality over thirty years of these two old West Coast loons.   For they soften: her damaged shrillness abates,  and his needy sexual keenness and five-times-a-night bragging morphs into  domesticity – significantly (check that metaphor!) watering the garden.  He installs an irrigation system, while she bristles that it’s her home not his, but fails to water the yucca.   But when she has had a mastectomy and her sexual bravado falters,  the old man’s arm goes round her  and tenderness prevails.  Because anyone but the dreariest sex-warrior knows that bonding for comfort, laughter and familiarity is a more durable human need than ceaseless unproductive mating.
box office   0207 565 5000     to 22 march.     Partner:  Coutts.
Rating:  three3 Meece Rating
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