“Intimacy to you is one thing, to me another”
Regular sex without all the encumbrances of marriage, that’s the deal on the table at the beginning of The Mistress Contract, Abi Morgan’s adaptation of a memoir of the same name by an American couple known anonymously as She and He. They’re both still alive, 88 and 93, and have kept recordings of the thirty plus years of their arrangement under which She provides He with “mistress services – all sexual acts as requested” in exchange for a regular income and a lush home in West California.
But far from an exploitative relationship, She and He are both middle-aged, highly educated, intellectuals – who’ve known each other since grad school – who are entering this contract with eyes wide open. And as we see thirty years fly by in five scenes which gently elide into each other, they debate her staunch feminism, the gender politics that shapes their sexual behaviour, the social conditioning that governs their emotional interdependence. For an intimacy does grow between them, a unique connection forged.
For unexpectedly, this turns out to be a love story. And it is unexpected for there’s so little visible emotion in the piece, whether the sizzling flame of undeniable sexual attraction or the heartbeating intensity of romantic love. Instead it is the intellectual intercourse that we witness and that is brought vividly to life by an achingly cagey Saskia Reeves, the emotional bruises of her previously marriages not quite gone, and a grizzled Danny Webb, perpetually horny but eventually maturing into something almost touching.
The uniqueness of their relationship is reflected in the clinical beauty of Merle Hensel’s design, a glass-walled showhome hinting strongly at the way in which the whole affair is viewed as an experiment by all concerned. But the longer we observe the subjects, the more they gracefully age and allow their mutual affection to flourish, the more affecting The Mistress Contract becomes in a welcome addition to the flurry of feminist-centred plays that have graced London’s stages so far this year.