The mistress’ contract is a great idea. She gets to live in a house with a swimming pool, rent free, in return for sexual favours granted to him any time except when she’s travelling or ill. What they get up to at other times is their own private business. The contract obviously works because it has lasted over thirty years and it still continues even though She is 88 and He 93.
The play isn’t quite so successful. There’s an awful lot of talk, and most of it isn’t that interesting. Sexual and gender politics, sex, feminism, what her kids are up to etc., some of which they tape for possible publication, but nothing about what’s going on in the world outside the plate-glass house she lives in and he visits, which appears to be in the middle of the desert yet by the sea somewhere on the west coast of the USA not far from LA (so I assume).
The problem is it is hard to engage with either character. She, the naturally beautiful and extremely talented Saskia Reeves, has worked strangely hard to make herself unattractive, with her specs, lank hair and drab clothes. Moreover she’s a windbag, which is a problem for the audience if not for him. There is one heart-stopping moment when, having been told by her that She has been propositioned by a younger man, He cries – I don’t want you to fuck anyone else and I don’t want to fuck anyone else! – which is really the first sign of a genuine and actually rather conventional emotion: jealousy. Unwittingly or otherwise this rather undermines the play’s theme of non-commitment but it’s a one-off moment and though it ends in an embrace – a rare moment of physical contact – it doesn’t really lead anywhere.
I almost (but not quite) longed to see the two of them getting their gear off and getting down to it rather than talking about it (they don’t). Calling the characters He and She and setting the play in an unknown place doesn’t help. Significantly when they are preparing their book she refuses to allow him to mention her mastectomy because it’s too personal, and she wants to be seen as Everywoman.
The Mistress Contract, based on the true and eventually published story (by He and She) and dramatised by Abi Morgan, touches on fascinating stuff but in such a bone-dry manner it’s difficult to feel truly involved. I was reminded partly of The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion’s account of the year her husband died and her daughter simultaneously contracted a serious illness. Two potentially dramatic emotions, death and sex, intellectualised till there’s very little life left in them.
But the idea is something else, definitely worth thinking about. I wouldn’t half mind living in the desert by the sea with a swimming pool in return for … A high price to pay? Maybe, maybe not. All enquiries please send to Box No 2038698.