The Mistress Contract [REVIEW]

The Mistress Contract

I really did not like this play, based on a real couple in the 1970s, that made a contract in which the woman exchanged sex for an income.

I didn’t like the characters, the actors or the presentation. I found the storyline interesting, but that’s about all, and that wasn’t enough for 90 minutes.

This conversational play, which just ended at The Royal Court Theatre, featured two English actors (Danny Webb and Saskia Reeves) addressing each other in dreadful American accents. The woman has one of these slightly whiny voices we recognise as suitable for a somewhat neurotic character, and the guy has the flat deep drawl of the good old boy. So far, so boring. Their contact is interesting, if only unusual in its brutal frankness. She offers sex and conversation for his money. Many Londoners will recognise the deal, but it takes an American Feminist to state this in a contract, and consider herself liberated by it.

Perhaps that started my feelings of disengagement and sadness. If men and woman cannot work together for an intimate relationship without the presence of lawyers, is there any hope left? Is American feminism really still stuck in the Andrea Dworkin time warp (she of 'all men are rapists')? I find that impossible to believe. Or maybe it is true, and intellectual women really are giving up on relationships and concentrated on ‘leaning in’ instead. So far, so depressing!

Maybe I am being too rosy, and the present-day debate about young boys learning their ‘sexual technique’ and expectations from porn on the Internet are indeed just a replay of that old debate about equality. Along with offers of 'vaginal refreshment' from respectable Harley Street clinics. (Apparently, they serve real medical purpose too.) Or the current story of Saudi princesses being locked up in their not-so-golden cages for years. And let’s not forget the horrific stories of men throwing acid on Afghan girls for wanting an education. At least we now tweet about these sorts of things.

In the play, the coldness of the proposition was mirrored in the actors physical approach. I don’t think I saw one tender gesture, and glimpsed maybe two gentle glances between that couple in one and a half hours. Their crude sex talk was tedious; there was no sensuality I could feel from this woman, and it took the guy to point this out! So he came up with a guy ‘solution’, a vibrator, but at least he tried, when she seemed to be stuck in self-righteous preaching. And stuck in a life without joy or fun, it seemed. Even a promising outing with a much younger man just didn’t convince her at all. This felt familiar from somewhere in our own feminist past: the inability to enjoy, to fully use all your senses, as if sensual pleasure with a man was far too dangerous to risk. But I really thought that the majority of contemporary women had managed to supersede this and integrate their rights to full development in all areas.

I’m not sure the present craze for tasseled dancing is quite the way either, but it's certainly more fun than daily dungarees. Maybe that why this play seems so old-fashioned! After all, the couple whose story the play tells, are now 88 and 93, the first generation of the first wave of feminism.

Of course, the stage often shows our reality, and certainly Alison Wollf’s recent book (The XX Factor, How the Rise of Working Women Has Created a Far Less Equal World) suggests that the exhausted upper middle class women who made it don't have it all, while damaging their sisters, and perhaps their children too (if the have any).

Contemporary feminists seem such a wider church now: baking and Tantra and family and work; it's all acceptable now, or am I being over-optimistic? The sad, somewhat empty feelings I left with at the end of the evening certainly make me fervently hope I’m not.