October 14, 2012

Blasted (extended)

October 14, 2012

by Sarah Kane
State Theatre Company
Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre
October 8. Tickets $ 25 – $ 35
Bookings : BASS 131 246
Until October 13.

It was British critic, Alex Sierz who put a name to the angry, convulsive, confrontational new theatre emergent in the UK in the 1990’s. He called it “In-Yer-Face” theatre and it described, among many, the work of Mark Ravenhill, Anthony Neilson and Sarah Kane. Except that her first play Blasted, written when she was in her early twenties and first performed at the Royal Court in 1995, is not just in-yer-face, it is in-yer-worst-nightmares.

Although greeted on debut with an angry furore from the English tabloids and disdained by most reviewers, the play had some notable defenders, including playwrights Harold Pinter and Edward Bond. They might well have recognized their own themes in the precocious daring of Sarah Kane. Pinter’s plays, The Caretaker and The Dumb Waiter among others, depict claustrophobic menace in confined spaces, while in Bond’s works there is an unflinching representation of violence – especially in the notorious 1965 play Saved, about a group of young hooligans who stone a baby to death in its pram.

In Blasted, Kane takes these themes and tropes with such apparent relish that it is like a bonfire of trolls, a harrowing of hell of medieval proportions. With its black dialogue it is almost like a monstrous comedy. It unfolds with the kind of ferocious gusto you see in a painting by Hieronymus Bosch, or a George Gross caricature from Weimar Berlin, or perhaps, a Grindhouse movie.

The play opens in an expensively kitsch hotel room in Leeds. Ian, a foul, racist, middle-aged gutter journalist with one lung missing and the other about to be coughed out on the carpet, has arranged a night with Cate, a lost young soul he had debauched while still a schoolgirl, and who is now a stammering, damaged young woman with an aversion to life itself.

In a fog of gin and cigarettes Ian implores, harasses and sexually abuses Cate who, in turn, resists and humiliates her tormentor. This listless cat and mouse cruelty, acted out with a loaded pistol, continues – interrupted only by deliveries from room service. Then comes the Pinteresque knock at the door, which heralds a shift in both narrative and style, as a soldier in full combat kit charges into the room weapons brandished – and Blasted explodes into an apocalyptic parable on warfare and the escalating violence of everyday life.

For State Theatre’s production in the Space, director Netta Yaschin has a large task managing and clarifying Kane’s turbulent, unruly text and generally does well. She is ably assisted by Wendy Todd’s cerise-toned hotel décor, with its en suite bath for the characters’ obsessive ablutions and a large bed for their pitiful attempts at dalliance. And, as the mayhem progresses, the room certainly looks convincingly like a bomb has hit it. Mark Pennington’s blitzkrieg lighting and Stuart Day’s haunting soundscape, from the Joy Division samples before the play begins to the mournful tolling bells of the final scene, also strongly contribute to the production.

As do the performances. As Ian and Cate, Patrick Graham and Anni Lindner are excellent. Graham is unsparing in his portrait of a man sullied and hollowed out by habitual depravity and abuse, while Lindner, especially in the opening scenes, gives precision to Kane’s somewhat generic characterization. The final scenes, with the dying baby and particularly the notorious ritual cannibalism sequence, are more difficult for both director and actors. This is Kane at her most outrageous, and it is somehow blasphemous, mythological, ludicrous and gratuitously indulgent all at the same time.

Like the earlier scene when the Soldier rapes Ian with a gun, it is a calculated shock effect but more extraneous than dramatically integrated. As the Soldier, Mark Saturno capably transforms an ordinary man into a grunting, reflexive weapon of human destruction. He is like an orc or a demonic wraith whose impulse for revenge for the death of his girl-friend is impossible to assuage and finally leads to frantic self- annihilation.

Blasted is a serious study of the ubiquity of cruelty and violence but, philosophically and emotionally, its focus is too narrow. This world is so generalized and so completely unspeakable that it becomes a kind of blanket nihilism. If the final lines, indicating some kind of truce between Cate and the now-blinded Ian, are supposed to suggest redemption, or some shred of humanity, it is too little – and definitely too late. Having detonated the stage so comprehensively, Sarah Kane’s Blasted can’t even begin to put Humpty together again.

Murray Bramwell

This review was written for, October 14, 2012.

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