To think about a Sarah Kane play is to think about Sarah Kane. This is one of the few things I feel sure about the Kane phenomenon, or cult, as powerful as ever 13 years after her suicide, and 17 since Blasted provoked a ludicrous tabloid outcry in her native England. It is impossible to watch her plays without thinking of the war she fought with her own mind and in the end lost, just as it is impossible to consider her true legacy within the dramatic canon without the shadow of her untimely death looming large over her small body of work – five plays, a short film, and two newspaper articles.
The shadow, I think, is at its darkest over the plays which bookended Kane’s career as a playwright – Blasted, her first, and 4.48 Psychosis, her last. The latter is the better of the two, an elegiac and unrelenting examination of a mind poisoned by mental illness. Blasted, by contrast, is very much the work of a playwright at the beginning of her career; excessive, anarchic, pissed off. It’s a play about sexual politics and many different kinds of inhumanity, in both love and war. It is anything but prosaic. It is anything but boring.
In the beginning, a Welsh-English journalist, Ian (Patrick Graham), brings troubled young woman Cate (Anni Lindner) back to his hotel room in Leeds. His increasingly aggressive sexual advances end in rape, an act which – through the symbol of a falling bomb – blasts both their worlds apart. Into this indefinite new reality steps a camouflaged and heavily-armed soldier (Mark Saturno). During the play’s premiere season, he may have been read by audiences as a combatant from the civil war in the former Yugoslavia which appalled Kane so much. Today, we might see him as a Syrian or Egyptian government soldier, or a mercenary hired from Africa by the Gaddafi regime. The soldier rapes Ian, inserts a gun up his arse and sucks out his eyeballs.
I don’t think I’m giving too much away by sharing these details. The second half of Blasted is a sort of grisly hit parade, a series of barely connected set-pieces which run the full gamut of wartime horror from sexual molestation, to cannibalism, to suicide, to the most vile kinds of disfigurement. One of the most chilling moments in this production sees the soldier directly address the audience: this is what your journalists won’t tell you is happening in other countries.
Maybe this is less resonant than it would have been in 1995, before smart phones, social media, the 24 hour news cycle and improved international mechanisms for bringing perpetrators of war crimes to attention and justice. It still shocks. So, too, does Ian’s blinding. The symbolism is, perhaps, a bit too obvious but it still has the power to affect, in part because we recognise the fundamental truth of it – that journalists are blinded by their own limitations, and those imposed on them by editors, executives and shareholders who can see nothing but the bottom line – and in part because it connects Kane’s play to a long history of bloody tragedy from Oedipus Rex to King Lear. Kane was heavily influenced by the sanguinary dramas of the ancient Greeks and the Jacobeans; the critics who missed (and continue to miss) this point cannot hope to understand her work.
There are three fine performances here, Graham, Lindner and Saturno all drawing on seemingly inexhaustible reserves of intensity to bring their distinctly difficult roles to life. Saturno is genuinely frightening, and Lindner and Graham work hard to imbue their relationship with the twisted logic needed before the bomb hits and the naturalism which Kane has fairly carefully crafted is dispensed with in favour of a nightmarish unreality which persists until the play’s final, nerve-jangling moments.
It is from this point, I think, that Netta Yashchin’s direction falters. The explosion that destroys the hotel room should punch the audience in the guts. Instead, two long girders descend gently from the ceiling and the elevated bathroom area is almost lovingly inclined as stagehands distribute some rubbish around the stage. The title of the play more than probably refers to this moment of extirpation, but it is anything but a blast – more like a bump. The isolated moments of horror which follow – the rape and blinding of Ian, the eating of the dead baby – are also strangely powerless. I felt numbed more than anything else. Yashchin’s solution to the burying of the baby – under the floor of the room according to the stage directions – is to have Cate remove a chunk of mattress and conceal it in the bed. Even in the dreamlike context of the second half of the play, this doesn’t really work, and leaves Graham looking unintentionally comical as he climbs in to be with the baby, only his head visible like Beckett’s Winnie.
This is not all Yashchin’s fault. Kane’s writing is at its weakest in these parts of the play, particularly during the lumbering exchange about the existence of god which occurs between Cate and Ian. The audience does not need to be convinced that Kane’s universe is a godless one – that much, at least, is beyond doubt. I also think the strobe-lit montage which chronicles Ian’s psychological demise is a peculiar device (Kane’s, not Yashchin’s) which might work in a film but looks incongruous on the stage.
Aristotle wrote that catastrophe is ‘an action bringing ruin and pain on stage, where corpses are seen and wounds and other similar sufferings are performed.’ Blasted is a catastrophe. To dismiss it, as so many critics have, as a lascivious and violent shock-fest is to overlook its essential point: that the West is not immune to the horrors which permeate foreign warzones, that there is a spectrum of inhumanity which may end in Bosnia-Herzegovina, Damascus or Auschwitz but does not necessarily begin there.
We may choose to hate a play like Blasted because of the way it violates cherished notions of ‘good taste’ and ‘decency’ but, to bring it back to the personal, Sarah Kane had no time for mealy-mouthed responses to the atrocities she knew to be occurring around the world, or to the West’s contradictory or complicit positions on them. Puny-minded indeed is the person who professes to be shocked by the events of a work of fiction and not by, to borrow a phrase from Stephen Fry, ‘the injustice, violence and oppression that howls daily about our ears.’