“It all has to mean something; otherwise there’s no point”
Running with the tagline “Reviled. Respected. Revived.” Sarah Kane’s Blasted is the latest play to open at the Lyric Hammersmith under Sean Holmes’ artistic direction. I was aware of some of the controversy around this play, the flyer proudly quotes the Daily Mail’s original review “this disgusting feast of filth”, but had avoided reading too much about it as this was my first experience of Sarah Kane’s work and wanted to approach it with fresh eyes. Thus this review (of a preview FYI) is mostly reactive to this production and accompanied by the few nuggets of biographical information procured from my companion over a pre-show slice of cake.
Set in a nondescript hotel room, well designed by Paul Wills in a letterbox format, we meet Ian, a sleazy unreconstructed tabloid journalist who has invited Cate up for the evening to seduce her. We soon ascertain that Cate is a naïve young woman, given to epileptic seizures and not a fully compliant partner in what Ian has planned. After a traumatic night, Cate eventually escapes but Ian is left to pay the consequences and then some as an armed soldier storms the room and events take a mightily explosive turn. Hereafter lies spoilers, so be warned.
So after the extremely uncomfortable scenes where Ian forces himself on Cate sexually in all manner of ways, culminating in a brutal rape, the tables are turned as what seems like a civil war is raging outside the hotel and its impact is soon felt as the hotel is blown up. This allows for a starkly effective dismantling of the set and the utilisation of the full depth and height of the Lyric’s stage, enhanced by menacing lighting from Paule Constable, to represent this apocalyptic scenario. And boy do I mean apocalyptic as with this war has come barbarity and so the soldier who invaded the room sodomises Ian and then sucks out his eyeballs. When the soldier then takes his own life, the broken Ian is left to fend for himself in this nightmare world, a confused Cate returns with a baby who then dies and in the most disturbing scene of a play made up of disturbing scenes, Ian is driven by extreme hunger to eat the corpse of the baby. Only in the final moments, does an unexpected show of humanity lift the spirits slightly and suggests the way forward from this darkness.
Kane pulls no punches in her depiction of civilisation gone horribly wrong, the implication being that the capacity for human cruelty stretches from the rape of one individual and inconsideration for others to the annihilation of society through the type of behaviour excused by the pretext of war: it is all just a matter of scale. Given that Blasted was written in 1995, it presages the post-terrorist-atrocities world with an eerie resonance; its warnings being applicable to all sides, a point reinforced by the recent revelations from Wikileaks of cover-ups in Iraq. And in its portrayal of the events: non-consensual sexual activity, masturbation, urination, anal rape, cannibalism, mutilation, Holmes’ production is uncompromisingly bleak: much is unflinchingly, painfully realised right in front of us.
It is shot through with a darkly humourous side too though lest we get too depressed: whether it is the funniest use of the exclamation ‘shit!’ towards the end; Cate surreptitiously turning over the pillow which she has just helped Ian to ejaculate onto or the deadpan comments which accompany many of the atrocities, there’s a bleak comedy, a sense of the ways in which people have to rationalise their behaviour in order to just keep living no matter how hard it may seem, as best portrayed by Aidan Kelly’s intruding soldier. Lydia Wilson plays the stuttering Cate with an unnerving intensity, taking us through manic episodes and her childlike wanderings and Danny Webb is uncompromising in his strident Ian, unafraid of exposing both cancerous body and cancerous soul whilst simultaneously desperate for attention and then suggesting the slow discovery of hidden depths as he is forced onto the most desolate of journeys.
I’m not sure if it was the nature of the audience on the night, the fact that the show provokes comment or a deliberate choice by director Sean Holmes to keep it almost episodic or some combination of all of them but the atmosphere in the theatre was quite peculiar. Whereas the Tricycle’s Broken Glass used live cello music in its interludes to maintain its contemplative air, as the curtain descended for each of the scene changes here, the mood was broken by the instant chatter around me. This production ends up working as a series of thrusts rather than a sustained assault on the senses, possibly better for the nerves this way but it did mean that the evening felt quite disjointed. Hopefully the changes can be speeded up (a definite possibility by opening night I would think) but I’d be tempted to ramp up the volume of the interlude sound effect to preclude too much talking and maintain some of the atmosphere that has been built up. I wasn’t convinced by the use of silences either: used too often and to too little effect, one assumes the intended effect was gravitas but it ended up feeling like delaying tactics.
It is hard to not to view Kane’s work without considering her suicide: indeed many reviewers changed their mind, after reviling its first run, when it was revived at the Royal Court after her death; the literature describes this play as seminal but one does wonder if that reverence has been earned entirely the right way. Coming away from Blasted I was left with the sneaking feeling that there was a little too much of the childish desire just to shock in what I had seen where there could have been more of the deeply moving, as in the montage of images that form most of the final scene which is just hauntingly beautiful to look at. That is not to deny that there is some extremely powerful writing in here, a sense of compassion for humanity no matter how twisted and cruel it gets and the kind of daring imagination that, combined with this clear-sighted production, makes this a confrontational and challenging night at the theatre that will live in the mind.
Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes (without interval)
Programme cost: £2
Booking until 20th November
Note: where to start! Full-frontal male nudity, smoking and scenes of a disturbing nature from start to finish, the Lyric advise a 16+ age limit.