The Mistress Contract, Royal Court – Or what one feminist did to love men again.

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If you’re at all upset by swearing or candid discussions about oral sex then you should avoid this latest offering from the Royal Court.  You would think that London’s theatre audiences have heard it all before but clearly some of the people who attended last night’s performance were displeased enough to walk out (quite frequently and loudly too).  I would like to be able to tell you that the play requires such frank discourse but that would be untrue.

Abi Morgan’s play is an adaptation of a book of the same title written under the pseudonym of She and He.  An American couple in their 40s embark on an affair in 1971 and the woman, a feminist, decides that a contract between them will make her situation more tenable and reduce the cognitive dissonance she experiences between her feminist ideals and her wish “to love men again”.  So, she presents him with a contract whereby he must provide her with a house and some money while she dispenses “mistress services” (i.e., “all sexual acts engaged in when requested”).

The Mistress Contract - Danny Webb and Saskia Reeves in rehearsals (Manuel Harlan)

The she in question has read her Betty Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Andrea Dworkin.  She attends a “women’s group” and is keen to explain that she is not selling sex.  On the contrary, she feels empowered by this contract. The premise being that she won’t get disappointed if she gets paid for what she use to give, out of love.  Clear expectations and cash will solve her problems.   I’ll go out on a limb here but quite frankly, does anyone buy this?  She also decides to tape all their pre and post coital conversations over more than three decades, to ostensibly give it a research slant.  Thus is born a book (with its frank sexual content) but can this make a play?  I would say a resounding no.

Ms Morgan’s play is all talk and no drama.  Her choice of breaking down the fourth wall to insert a few dates and some exposition, all of which could have been covered in a short paragraph in the programme, doesn’t help to keep us enthralled.  Danny Webb does a fantastic job in the role of the businessman in love but how many times can you watch a man dress and undress on stage.  The same can be said of Saskia Reeves who is convincing as the pseudo-intellectual feminist by day and mistress by night.  Ms Reeves had a few problems with her lines on the first night though I’m sure these will be ironed out in time. The Royal Court’s Artistic Director, Vicky Featherstone, does a fine job  with very little and the set by Merle Hensel is beautiful, with large panes of glass giving us a view of the California desert.

Ultimately, I found the conversation unexceptional and the territory very well trodden.  And, even if we like to read about other people’s sex scandals (re François Hollande just to name one), being a fly-on-the-wall in their bedroom, should they wish to partake in such semi-intellectual discourse, is rather more boring than profound or even titillating.