In 1995, the premiere of 23 year old Sarah Kane’s play Blasted unified the critics. To a man (sic), they were appalled. Their vitriol was unleashed, unhinged, even. The Daily Mail smeared: ‘A Disgusting Feast Of Filth’ across the fish’n’chip wrappings of the morrow; The Telegraph opined ‘devoid of intellectual and artistic merit’.
Fellow writers defended her with passion. And not just contemporaries like David Greig and Vincent O’Connell; but big names like Harold Pinter, Caryl Churchill and Edward Bond. It was the cause celebre of its day, the natural descendent, as it were, of Bond’s Saved – the last play to be prosecuted for indecency by the Lord Chamberlain.
Kane wrote four more plays before her suicide in 1999.
She was just 27.
Since her death, there’s been a major rethink about the importance of her work, with mea culpas all round.
Even so, it’s both salutary and perplexing to consider the vehemence of that initial collective reaction. And watching this newest iteration of the work at Malthouse it’s impossible to ignore the potency of both the response and its aftermath.
Written against a background of atrocities, courtesy of the Croat-Bosniak War and detailed on nightly telly, Blasted premiered in a country whose own theatrical tradition includes the following splatterings:
Titus Andronicus (Shakespeare):
Mum fails to recognise sons’ heads in pie bake-off!
Girl sends message with stick-in-arm-stumps – hands and tongue chopped off!
King Lear (also Shakespeare):
Eyeball-sock-shock as King’s friend blinded!
The Duchess of Malfi (Webster):
Severed hand not husband’s! Incest! Poison! Wolfman!
Not to mention the many performances of Greek and Roman blood-bath classics and hell, even a church-sponsored staging of The Mysteries depicted a bloke being nailed to a cross.
A man and a woman (Cate and Ian), enter an anonymous upmarket motel room. When the curtains are pulled back the vista is, apparently, endless; yet we feel increasingly trapped, imprisoned.
The man is skinhead bald. He has a gun holstered to his side. He reveals himself as racist, violent, homophobic, misogynistic and in a surprise twist, a journalist. He’s also dying.
The woman is child-like. ‘Simple’ possibly, and inconsistent. A kind of innocent. You fear for her.
The atmosphere is initially flirtatious with violence a side-dish.
You await a specific predictable outcome. And so it transpires.
Then things start to go bad.
The five enactments of (ritual) slaughter that follow – each ending in rainfall – escalate in scale.
From individual atrocity to a world gone insane. But there’s an awful inevitability about it all.
The atmospherics, if you will, of this production are effective. The motel room suggests serial-killer-sinister rather than blood-bathed horror; but when it’s blown apart, blasted (a powerful design by Marg Horwill), it reveals the world as charnel house.
Paul Jackson’s lighting design and Jethro Woodward’s sound design and composition confirm a sense of underlying unease.
A series of (beautiful) images projected at the foreground of the action (cinematography: Sky Davies) do little to enhance the piece. If they are intended to be integral, from the front few rows they are almost impossible to see, and likewise if they’re an escape from what’s live-on-stage.
Anne-Louise Sarks’ direction is committed and clear. Though, I think, it doesn’t go quite far enough.
What’s missing for me is the terrifying certainty that the atrocities recounted by the man and the soldier are enjoyable to them. To be relished, even.
This is, it seems to me, a very female world view. Another strike against it. The female character is the most immediately sympathetic, though we know that women can be every bit as terrifying as men – perhaps they just haven’t had as much opportunity.
Performances are excellent. Eloise Mignon is a remarkable presence as Cate and David Woods is a conflicting, conflicted Ian. As the soldier who blasts through the door of the room, rapes Ian and shoots himself, Fayssal Bazzi is, by turns, terrifying and distressing.
The characters, their accents precise and particular are ‘other’; and I couldn’t help wondering how they would sound if they weren’t.
How much of the original power (and offence) might have derived from the piece being so local to an English audience?
Aside from one mention of Yorkshire the text is not so geographically definite that it demands any particular regional cadence. Yes, of course one can make the intellectual leap, but it’s another barrier to self-awareness. And God knows we have atrocities of our own to face.
The greatest problem for me though, is the impossible one. Blasted is an uncompromising piece of theatre. Stick it on in a comfortable building with a bar and cafe and all the other trappings of a well-appointed public venue, and there’s a disjunct that’s pretty well insurmountable (though you may well need a drink at the end of this show.) We’re at a remove, detached from what should grip us.
This is not an edge-of-the-abyss play, like Godot or even Macbeth, this is tales-from-the-abyss.
Every day another schoolyard shooting, another bludgeoned wife, another battered baby, another stabbed, bombed, eviscerated body.
So many of the ‘events‘ of the play (prepare for rape, suicide, maiming, cannibalism) though revolting, are not shocking. They’re extreme. But they’re everyday.
If anything shocked me it was that familiarity. But by the end I felt curiously detached. And I thought of Eliot’s The Hollow Men:
‘This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.’
Until September 16. Photo by Pia Johnson