Thanks to Jack Tinker, theatre critic of the Daily Mail from 1972 to 1996, Sarah Kane’s Blasted will always be referred to as a “feast of filth”, a beautifully alliterative phrase dismissing what he regarded as “a play which appears to know no bounds of decency yet has no message to convey by way of excuse”. I always enjoyed reading Jack Tinker. He had a very entertaining style, and for many years was the only possible reason for buying the Daily Mail. Now that the Mail’s theatre crits are written by Quentin Letts, there’s no reason at all to buy it. Of course, Sarah Kane got her own back on him in her own inimitable style by naming a sadistic concentration camp manager in her play Cleansed after him. It’s what he would have wanted (not!)
Blasted first saw light of day in 1995 at a time when Mrs Chrisparkle and I rarely saw plays in London. I remember the controversy about it at the time, and hoped that one day I would get to see the disgraceful filth for myself (having researched stage censorship as a postgraduate, dirty plays have always been my *thing*). Lo and behold, twenty years later, the Sheffield Crucible decide to mount a Sarah Kane season. I’m sure the fact that Daniel Evans, the Crucible’s Artistic Director, was in many of Miss Kane’s original productions, will have been a contributing factor to this decision. After a little research, I discovered we were to be treated to nudity, oral sex, cannibalism, racism, rape (twice), and other assorted violence. I admit, I do like to be challenged in the theatre.
There’s a very interesting introductory note by her brother Simon in the programme. I expect you know, but just to fill in the gaps if you don’t, Sarah Kane suffered from severe depression throughout her short life and committed suicide in 1999 at the age of 28. Before she died, she left instructions that no one should ever write a biography of her, she destroyed her diaries, and requested that none of her friends should ever publish any letters of hers. Those wishes have all been respected; but as a result there has been much in the way of guesswork and fantasy in trying to fill the consequent knowledge vacuum about her life.
Blasted is, in many ways, an extraordinary play, taking the relatively simple basis of a couple staying in a hotel room, and then subsequently blowing it apart – literally. So much of what it’s about appears to be in what’s not said. Again, from Simon Kane’s introduction: “she once told me that everything you need to know to understand the plays is contained within the plays themselves; anything else is as likely to be misleading as it is to be enlightening. So when you’re watching them, keep an open mind…. the plays are as much about you as they are about her”. Wasn’t it Ronan Keating (I think it was) who said, “you say it best when you say nothing at all”? Much of Blasted is littered with silences and pauses, enough to make even Pinter believe the actors had forgotten their lines. But whereas in Pinter, the silences are sometimes so portentous – and loud almost – that they’re like the contributions of additional invisible characters; in Blasted, the silences are just that – moments when there isn’t anything to say, because the characters are merely thinking, or waiting, or daydreaming, or conspiring. It feels like a very realistic conversational style in a way that Pinter often (to me) feels very artificial. The speech patterns throughout the play have a surprising delicacy despite the harshness of the actual words being spoken. Sarah Kane had a remarkable feel for language.
In a nutshell, Ian and Cate are staying in a hotel room in Leeds. He’s much older than she is, and has poor health, no doubt in part due to too much smoking and drinking; she has some form of learning disability causing her to stutter when stressed and occasionally faint. They’ve obviously had some kind of relationship in the past and it quickly becomes clear that he is hoping for lots of sex from their hotel stay and she is hoping to avoid it. In the world outside there is warfare, with soldiers on the streets; in the world inside there is the more conventional champagne and room service. The following morning it’s obvious that he’s raped her, and she takes her revenge in a number of ways (especially painful ones). She escapes through the bathroom window, and when a knock comes at the door, Ian, expecting a waiter with more food and drink, lets in a fully armed soldier, desperate for food, and seemingly ready to kill. A mortar bomb blasts through the wall (a literally smashing special effect), and the ordinary, unremarkable hotel room is transformed into Armageddon. Facing very little resistance, the soldier rapes Ian, then sucks out his eyes and eats them. The next scene shows the soldier having committed suicide, and Cate returned with a baby, that she has been given on the street to rescue. The baby dies, Cate buries it under the floorboards; then there are some short scenes featuring Ian in various stages of distress, including digging up the baby’s body and eating it. Cate appears one last time with some food and drink which she shares with Ian. Curtain. As we got up from our seats at the end of the play, Mrs C turned to me and said, “Well, Leeds has gone down a bit”.
I’m getting a number of references here. Not only do you have Pinteresque dialogue, there’s some Edward Bond with the dead baby (Saved), there’s Gloucester’s eyes being put out (King Lear), Ian’s head alone being visible above the floorboards suggested to me Winnie being buried up to her neck in Beckett’s Happy Days, and the cannibalism brought to mind certain religious rituals. If everything you need to know to understand the play is contained within it, then you have to piece together the clues from what you hear and what you see. Thus clarity in the direction and presentation is absolutely vital. The clarity of the spoken word was excellent – I heard every word that every character said because they were enunciated to perfection. However, visually, I’m sorry to say I think this is where this production slightly falls down.
It’s directed by the redoubtable Richard Wilson, who knows a thing or two about modern texts and bringing life to difficult drama. I thought the first two scenes, with just Ian and Cate, were clear, powerful, full of tension and dark humour; but once the soldier had arrived the clarity started to wane. Things that should have been fully visible were obscured. Although we were one of the first people in to the Studio to “bags” our good seats (reasonably central, more or less eye level with the actors), from our viewpoint (and I’m sure for many people) the soldier’s dead body was obstructed by an overturned table. As neither of us were familiar with the play, we couldn’t work out what had happened to him. I guessed he was dead, but how? Mrs C could see his leg; I could see his leg and some blood, but neither of us could see the gun that he was apparently holding. Kane’s characters don’t remark on the body; it’s not as though Cate trips over him and says, “oh I see the soldier is dead, did you kill him or did he shoot himself?” That turned into an unnecessary mystery for us.
The play contains a lot of graphic images and gruesome content, all of which contribute to Tinker’s feast of filth. But in Richard Wilson’s production all this tough material was staged in an extraordinarily discreet way. It’s as though Mr Wilson has done his best to make the play acceptable for a Women’s Institute coach party. For me it felt almost sanitised. The final scenes where Ian is, inter alia, masturbating, strangling himself, defecating, laughing hysterically, having a nightmare, and hugging the dead soldier gave Mrs C the impression that Ian had fallen into some kind of general madness, and made me think he was trying to relieve his intense hunger. Of course, it’s fine for two people to interpret what they see differently. But because some of these actions took place in hidden corners of the set, it wasn’t easy to draw a conclusion as to what you were actually seeing.
Earlier in the play, when Ian takes his clothes off, faces Cate and tells her to “put your mouth on me”, he stands at an angle where I would estimate maybe a maximum of 10% of the audience could see what happened (if anything did). The scene where Cate bites his penis in revenge, the other masturbation scenes, the soldier’s rape and the brief defecation scene are all staged so that you can’t really see what’s going on. Now I don’t wish to sound prurient, but Sarah Kane’s text and stage directions don’t pull any punches and I would have thought that the additional visual shock element would have been much truer to her intentions. Considering the subject matter, I just found the whole presentation, using discreet angles, and obstructing sight-lines, remarkably coy.
One thing that was made very clear from the play – and the production – is that rape is an act of power, not of sex. It’s used as a tool to dominate, both by the pathetic Ian and the murdering machine that is the soldier. The soldier’s behaviour with Ian, from urinating on his pillow (also shown discreetly) to raping him, reminded me of two dogs, working out which one was the higher in the pecking order. But why did the soldier commit suicide? After all, he was riding high with power, and everything was going his way. But he was also devastated at the loss of his girlfriend, due to her being raped and murdered by another soldier. That’s why he did what he did to Ian. It was like passing on the baton in a relay. I also have a theory that there may be a connection between the otherwise unexplained war on the streets outside, and its incursion into the hotel room, with Sarah Kane’s own state of mind. Maybe she saw the warfare as all the darkness of depression that’s within constant touching distance, whilst the hotel room is a kind of sanctuary, a scene of normality. After Ian has desecrated this haven by committing rape, the forces of mental darkness encroach the room, both in the form of the soldier and in the mortar blast that takes away the wall. Or this could be precisely the kind of guesswork that Simon Kane believes to be unhelpful.
There would have to be a huge sense of trust between the three actors to convey the content of such a vivid and daring piece of writing. Jessica Barden as Cate stood out for me as an immensely strong yet fragile creation, as pale as a porcelain doll, concealing her emotions behind an exterior of pure practicality, making the apparent inconsistencies within the character appear perfectly reasonable. Her chilling, mocking, slightly unhinged laugh, which she can turn on or off in an instant, provides the biggest clue to her personality. A very unsettling, unpredictable and amazingly effective performance. Martin Marquez is an excellent Ian, a moral lowlife throwing out racist and homophobic insults like confetti, wheedling out the occasional “I love you” to Cate, (which sometimes you believe and sometimes you don’t), living his life selfishly as he expects it not to last much longer. Like all bullies, when confronted with a stronger force he just caves in. It’s hard to make such an unpleasant character the object of your sympathy, but Mr Marquez makes Ian so utterly pathetic, especially at the end, that I think he succeeds. Mark Stanley’s soldier is an excellent study in animalistic brutality whilst still believing in his ability to love; a truly ominous outside influence that breaks and enters the real world with devastating effect.
At an hour and three quarters with no interval, it’s certainly an intense experience, but thrilling too. This was the final performance of this run, but if you’re up for it, there’s more to come in the Sarah Kane season in March. This is an excellent opportunity to judge for yourself her place in modern drama. Give it a go!
PS. Richard Wilson sat behind us for this performance. Before it started, part of me was itching to turn around and let out a huge “I don’t belieeeeeeeeve it!” just like Father Ted did when he kept bumping into him. However, Mr Wilson has that serious look that implies he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so I thought discretion was the better part of valour. Instead, I resolved to tell him afterwards what a terrific production it was. Trouble is, for the reasons mentioned earlier on, I didn’t think it was that terrific a production, so for the moment, Mr Wilson and I remain strangers.
Production photos by Mark Douet.