“She and He are the pseudonyms of a real-life couple who live in separate houses in the same city on the west coast of America. She is 88. He is 93.” In case of any confusion, they are now 88 and 93. The contract that became known as the Mistress Contract has been ongoing for over 30 years. He gave She almost complete independence, everything she could ever need is paid for. In exchange, She gives He “All sexual acts as requested, with suspension of historical, emotional, psychological disclaimers.”
He and She recorded various conversations and talked openly about what they were doing to each other, they talked about life, politics, feminism and, of course, sex. This resulted in a book called ‘The Mistress Contract’. Like most delightful happenstances, the book caught the attention of its eventual director Vicky Featherstone who gave it to playwright Abi Morgan. The play both adapts and as well as questions the book and the contract drawn on that day in 1981.
Even though she must perform all sexual acts as requested, the play is not about the sex but about the time She and He spend together. It’s clear they are intellectual equals. She, played by Saskia Reeves, is a teacher and well-read in feminist literature and He, played by Danny Webb, is a wealthy self-made business man. There are many definitions and requirements behind the word ‘mistress’ such as secretive, being ‘kept’ and one party is married. He and She do not meet all the requirements but that’s not their relationship is primarily about. They are each other’s companion, friend and equal.
They share a relationship based on their differences, leading to fiery exchanges much like Shakespeare’s Beatrice and Benedick. Brilliantly acted, the characters discussions are tinted with love and admiration for one another but they never quite show it. Even near the end, it’s quite clear the contract was giving them what they thought they wanted but not what they needed. They both want a challenging partner, someone that can challenge His authority and someone that can challenge Her opinions.
Abi Morgan is able to articulate all sides of the arguments and challenges presented when constructing a contract of this nature as well as our relationship to sex. Nothing is deemed inappropriate as She talks frankly about giving blow jobs, just as He notes that She doesn’t know what she likes because she won’t experiment and find out what she likes on her own. It reminded me of ‘Oleanna’, a unique situation where there’s no winner and you don’t find yourself on one person’s ‘side’. It is simply an exploration into gender equality and the audience must do the grunt work in figuring out the message or dog whistle of the play. It refreshing and inspiring to see a play that gets so much right, it makes you think and laugh. It is superbly acted written and directed in a beautiful set.