The Mistress Contract

Feminism is challenging. Always has been. It can ruffle the most sanguine of feathers, set off domestic revolutions. Seldom is it boring which is why it is sad to report that Abi Morgan’s Royal Court debut play falls surprisingly into that category. Not all the time and towards the end, definitely not.
But for a large swathe of The Mistress Contract’s 85 minutes, Morgan’s dialogue, `inspired’ by the real-life tapes of an American couple who entered into just such an exchange, really did send some to sleep and me to exasperation.
The story goes like this. `She’ gave herself sexually to `He’, in exchange for which he undertook to keep her in `tasteful accommodation’ with accompanying expenses.
Reflecting on past precedents, this is a not unusual compact in the history of mistresses and patrons. The chink in this argument is the fact `She’ was a feminist and the contract her proposal. Is her proposal `radical’, a `betrayal’ or just plain pragmatism in action being penniless with two children to keep and feed?
Meeting at college in the 1980s when both were middle aged, `He’ is now 92, `She’ 88 – a remarkable enough fact in itself. The problem is that though this situation may raise various burning issues about men and women and sexual equality, the artefact that arises from it seldom grips sufficiently to make one care.
If Morgan was `inspired’ by the couple’s words, where exactly do they stop and hers begin? As Saskia Reeves grinds through the everyday occurrences that occupy the tapes, sometimes espousing feminist feelings, sometimes domestic, interest falters.
Maybe it was the production’s intention for Reeves’ `She’ to appear dull, unresponsive, monotone in speech and emotion as a modern feminist setting out on an `experiment’, after two failed marriages, to see if she can love men again.
But it becomes very hard to see the attraction Danny Webb’s warm, affectionate `He’ has for her. Far from encouraging our sympathies in her direction, the duologue pushes us the other way.
Only towards the end, in the longevity of their relationship and ageing frailties of their bodies does The Mistress Contract ignite passion and engagement.