The Mistress Contract review
by Stewart Pringle
‘The Mistress Contract’, an alleged transcription of decades of intercourse (the chatty kind) between a couple who forged and maintained an unusual sexual arrangement over more than thirty years, landed in October of 2011, just before Fifty Shades of Grey transformed every airport WH Smith into a gallery of queasily kinky erotica. It’s been brought to the stage by Abi Morgan, whose recent screen success with Shame and The Iron Lady should make her peculiarly suited to an exploration of sex and viciously dehumanizing capitalism. As a transcription, pulled from conversations taped by ‘She’ over the course of their relationship, the book is ostensibly ‘play-like’ in form anyway, and Morgan’s role here is as much textual dramaturg as author. Morgan has re-transcribed and annotated this relationship, already so peculiarly over-watched, formalized and constructed.
The contract in question provides ‘He’ with total sexual ownership and access to ‘She’, in return for which he provides her with an income and a flashy house in the desert. They’re not strangers, this is no Indecent Proposal, but friends from graduate school who have become lovers when re-united in middle-age. She loves him (or He) in a way, she desires his company for walks (apparently) and his conversation (bafflingly), though it’s unclear how much she desires his body. She certainly resents his constant requests for a blow-job on the drive home from the airport. He offers her something different from the two marriages that lie behind her. He desires her, particularly for the blow-jobs, and is willing to part with a chunk of his income to keep her and them on tap.
At one point She declares that ‘Prostitution is degrading for everyone.’, but barring this there is little interrogation of the explicit power dynamic of their relationship. Instead, their conversations frequently glide around the question of She’s feminism, where it can exist within their relationship, or any relationship. She attends a group, who He mockingly refers to as her ‘sisters’, and though she keeps the nature of their relationship on the down-low at first, it is clearly figured in her mind as a component for keeping herself honest to her values. The tape recordings fulfil a related purpose, they configure the arrangement as an experiment, a contribution to gender relations and perhaps to feminism, someday perhaps they’ll be another book to file alongside her Dworkin.
Critics frequently talk about some play or other ‘skewering’ or ‘nailing’ a concept (I’ve certainly used both terms in the past) and the great strength of The Mistress Contract, much to Morgan and director Vicky Featherstone’s credit, is that it ‘pins down’ sweet F A. ‘She’ may be self-deluding, ‘He’ may be a horny buffoon, they are both audibly total bloody pseuds, but nobody is let off that lightly. The validity of She’s experiment, the implications of their arrangement for feminism or economics or shopping or fucking are never resolved, there is no point being made here. Instead the questions are woven through the morass of tedious philosophising that both characters spout until the weft of banalities are pulled taut.
There’s not much talk of sex here, or of money either. Instead there is introspection and mutual analysis. The contract, tape recorder or editors pen return again and again to questions of positioning: what do we value in one another? What do we expect of one another? What do we expect to give in return? Some of the gender stereotypes here are pretty hideous (men want oral sex, women want snuggles and country walks) and She’s feminism often amounts to little other than objections to He’s constant mansplaining, but the play constantly forefronts the significance of exchange in sexual relations, it almost totally refutes mutuality, so if its answers are slim, its questions are at least ringing and highly complex in their implications.
Merle Hensel’s strange and troubling set makes a major contribution to this. The house where these conversations take place is like an observation chamber or a vivarium, a box made of pure money in the heart of an arid desert. In a text crawling with gender-studies pontification it’s difficult not to see the colossal cactus that erupts into the ceiling in sexual terms. She declares that the land around her house is ‘a desert masquerading as a garden’, but it’s not that either, apart from the turgid mega-cactus it’s film-set fake, its cut-out backdrop a further reminder of the artificiality that exists at every level of these encounters.
Featherstone directs with a similarly removed eye. Neither character seems at home in their surroundings, they sign their contracts with the papers held awkwardly against their legs, they curl up post- coitally on a bed-roll in their fish-tank boudoir. Apart from a brief moment of fire surrounding She’s mastectomy, relations are cool and true to the forced, empty and showy prose of the source text. Featherstone refuses to flatten ambiguities or force moral conclusions, leaving the play muted but far more intriguing. It may be the most elusive and difficult play the Royal Court has staged in some time.
That’s not to say that it’s a particularly enjoyable watch. Even as the green shoots of a less austere relationship begin to show through, the characters are rather repellent people. The dialogue is as clunky as you’d expect of something so intentionally mediated, and if it succeeds in creating thinking space it leaves the play emotionally uninvolving. The first fifteen minutes in particular are a thankless slog, there are sections that drag and others that feel underdeveloped, but it makes for a fascinating whole.
The pill is sweetened considerably by the presence of Saskia Reeves and Danny Webb. Webb is as brilliant as ever, his macho puffery softening across the years, while Reeves becomes gradually dislocated from the human elements in her life.
The Mistress Contract is a play with serious questions to ask about the commodification of sexuality and the female body under capitalism. The record of this peculiar experiment may be coolly framed and dusted with the sociological rhetoric of the 1980’s, but this production makes a strong case for its pertinence.