'The Mistress Contract' review or 'Is this a bonding agreement?'

'The Mistress Contract', Abi Morgan 
Royal Court Theatre, 5th January 2014
Written for Blouin Artinfo

Abi Morgan understands powerful women. She has fleshed out countless pioneering ladies, including Margaret Thatcher (The Iron Lady), the first female producers at the BBC (The Hour) and suffragettes. The Mistress Contract examines an anonymous real-life lady, ‘She’, who drew up a relationship contract with her lover, ‘He’, in an attempt to unite her feminist beliefs and romantic urges. It is one hell of a frank and perceptive play.  
The terms were simple. ‘She’ would provide sexual services for ‘He’ in return for companionship and financial support. The contract was signed in the 1980s and the American couple, now 88 and 93 years old, are still together today. They taped all their meetings and eventually wrote a memoir, on which Morgan’s script is based. It is practically a verbatim play and the script hums with a distinct emotional honesty; the dialogue loops and stutters and stumbles, human and flawed.
Director Vicky Featherstone plays out this 30 year ‘contractual agreement’ on a static and exposed stage. There are no distinct scene changes. The two actors undress, adopt poses and pick up new props with the lights up and loud jazz playing. Everything is transparent, just as these two lovers – so keen to intellectualise and analyse their relationship – would have desired.

Merle Hensel’s set consists of a huge glass-walled house, surrounded by a desert landscape. There is nowhere to hide. A giant cactus climbs up and through the glass ceiling. There is a wonderful, cheeky irony to the idea of the glass ceiling finally being penetrated by an enormous penis-shaped cactus.

Saskia Reeves and Danny Webb handle the transition from cautious lovers to old and intertwined companions with real grace and subtlety. There is a whiff of the lecture hall about their early encounters, as the two trade feminist and existential blows. The middle-aged couple re-discover their youth together; drinking, kissing and arguing long into the night.
Reeves is cool and commanding but never unreachable. There is a fear behind her brisk arguments that occasionally wriggles free; she turns away from her lover to dress or flinches at the mention of another woman. Webb’s ‘He’ luxuriates in the sound of his own voice but is a warm and protective lover. The few admissions of emotional dependence – ‘You’re not just anyone’ – are all the more powerful for their scarcity.
The play occasionally feels a touch contrived, especially squeezed into just 90 minutes. But it is a joy to watch this couple construct their lives together, tip-toeing around their need for each other, as the tape recordings of their endless encounters builds and builds. Eventually a line of tapes snakes across the front of the stage; a physical reminder of a shared life that no contract clause will ever undo.