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Posts Tagged ‘sarah kane’

In ten years time she’ll still be dead

In classics long after, quotables on November 2, 2010 at 9:37 am

Notes on and quotes from 4:48 Psychosis (2000) Sarah Kane

“Some will call this self-indulgence / (They are lucky not to know its truth) / Some will know the simple fact of pain / This is becoming my normality”

When people say the psychic firestorm of Kane’s last play – entirely free of stage directions and thus endlessly re-interpreted since – symptomises a natural end, they show a want of imagination. Nothing was inevitable; if anything, art is the enemy, rather than the accomplice, of fate.

4:48 NYC

Such free plays, blank cheques from writers to directors, had been produced before – but even (for example) Handke’s Offending the Audience came with rules and sets. Kane waived such frames, and the form’s predominantly conceptual angle was here wrenched from public address to inward reflection (Crimp’s Attempts on Her Life had still mostly engaged from behind the third person). No directions, only text, and the text only fragments.

Although occasionally rising to the rhetorical highs of performance poetry, more often words pool in the (seeming) first-draft intimacy of diary depths. But beneath the stylistic scattershot and centrifugal emotional flux, there is a story. Of illness, and treatment. Of doctors who ask stupid questions, who understand less with each answer, doctors who prescribe drug after drug, each its own special effect. (“Please. Don’t switch off my mind by attempting to straighten me out.”) One seems to care, but cannot ultimately stretch beyond professional conduct: “You don’t need a friend you need a doctor” (After a pause: “You are so wrong”). Insomnia. And a moment of clarity – at 4:48.

“Nothing can extinguish my anger / And nothing can restore my faith / This is not a world in which I want to live”

4:48 2007

The title of this post is a quote from the playtext. It’s that reflexive, that tangled in tenses. Kane committed suicide in 1999. Even its first performance was posthumous. I could spin out sentences on what might have been, had she lived, but enough, I think, to acknowledge that her works have gone on to be mainstays of modern European theatre. Their questions live on.

“They will love me for what destroys me”

the stain of a scream

In classics long after, quotables on June 3, 2010 at 11:38 pm

Notes on and quotes from Crave (1998) Sarah Kane

“I am lost, so fucking lost in this mess of a woman.” (A)

Crave

Famously, fearing her reputation was saturating reactions to her work (for and against), Kane trialled Crave under a pseudonym – and this was possible only because its total rejection of setting or stage direction was so formally remote from the explicit scenes of her previous plays. Likewise, extreme characters make way for genderless, ageless ciphers – A, B, C and M. “…one can almost feel the intoxicating release of Kane’s writing as the borderlines of character evaporate entirely and her imagery moves from physical to textual realisation.” (David Greig)

“She’s talking about herself in the third person because the idea of being who she is, of acknowledging that she is herself, is more than her pride can take.” (C)

Without proxies, there’s a tendency to listen for Kane’s own unfiltered voice – though the text is littered with quotes from other works. “I am an emotional plagiarist, stealing other people’s pain, subsuming it into my own.” (C) In this it perhaps functions in a similar way to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land (itself referenced in the play), but presented in a headlong rush of multiple views and voices recalling Beckett’s Play. Unlike the latter, Crave is never still or clear enough to allow a stable narrative to emerge.

Perhaps the closest to a common element between the voices is some trauma in the past, identified by at least one voice as sexual abuse – the picture painted indelible. “An empty car park which I can never leave,” says C. “That moment which I’ve been hurtling away from ever since,” says A – and the tension between the two goes a long way to embody the permanent aftermath many abuse victims feel. Kane did hint the roles might be played by a pair of older and younger men and women, suggesting classic family dynamics.

Crave 2

In fact, the longer the play goes on, the less real distinction there feels between the voices, the more it begins to feel like a single mind – or body which has internalised a conflict it is doomed to repeat. “Guilt lingers like the smell of death and nothing can free me from this cloud of blood.” (A) The same emotions erupting periodically. The same lies rehearsed and recited. “The same lesson, again and again.” (B) There is the sense of a family splitting just as there is a single wrecked psyche attempting to understand its wrecker. As the play ends, it has turned toward a feeling of almost hysterical heavenly redemption, but there is no resolution – the final positive climax ultimately seems as jumbled a mass of emotions as the lows before – this is the difference between message-based and experiential theatre. It’s like music. It’s like the weather.

“What’s anything got to do with anything?” (C)

they burned your body

In classics long after, quotables on May 28, 2010 at 12:33 am

Notes on and quotes from Cleansed (1998) Sarah Kane

“Think about getting up, it’s pointless. Think about eating, it’s pointless. Think about dressing, it’s pointless. Think about speaking, it’s pointless. Think about dying only it’s totally fucking pointless.” (Grace/Graham)

If Blasted made Kane’s name via its full-frontal short-circuit of naturalism, Cleansed would start in a resultant afterworld denuded of socio-historic context. And if the form of the former was explosive, the latter is institutional – some curious, awful hybrid of university and death camp, to be exact. The play’s episodes are experiments – to measure the power or worth of love in the face of violence as pure as dissection.

Cleansed

Tinker is doing the dissecting. He’s a doctor and a dealer. It’s his institution, and he is god within his own creation. When Grace arrives looking for her brother – whose overdose, presented almost as ritual, constitutes the first scene – she gives herself up to be closer to his memory, which will shadow her through the trials to come. She will dress in his clothes. Eventually they seem to fuse.

“Listen. I’m just saying this once. I love you now. I’m with you now. I’ll do my best, moment to moment, not to betray you. Now. That’s it. No more. Don’t make me lie to you.” (Rod)

Meanwhile, among the other inmates, Rod and Carl – a couple – will be torn apart with exactitude. 1984‘s fear of torture used to invalidate or de-idealise love is only the beginning for this pair of pinned butterflies. And it is in the physicality of their relationship’s dismemberment that we see how far beyond the arm’s length etiquette of psychological normalism Kane was willing to go. When Carl speaks love, his tongue is removed, when he writes, his hands, when he dances, his feet.

Cleansed again

So, where her first impact came from epic atrocities visited with the sudden force of divine thunderbolts on realistic characters, her second original play dovetails equal brutality so deeply in its everyday structure that it seems a stable element, a fact of life. What became the talking point this time was not the starkness of the action, but the calculated challenge of its impossible stage directions – most famously ‘The rats carry Carl’s feet away‘ but also the anti-illusionistic magic tricks of flowers growing through the floorboards or wounds synchronising on different bodies. For all the bloody carnage, the emotional cruelty, the fallibility of body and personality alike, the power of the play is manifested in its visual poetry. Suitably, it’s difficult to think beyond Yeats to summarise it – “A terrible beauty is born…”

“Shh shh shh. No regrets.” (Tinker)

some productions: sarah kane

In classics long after, some productions, video on May 22, 2010 at 10:34 am

Before moving on to Kane’s later work – and to demo just how firmly it’s taken root (especially in mainland Europe) – today I’m presenting a selection of performance clips. As her career progressed, she increasingly gave up stage directions, which has become a licence for radically different productions of her scripts – a kind of artistic roulette documented here in five videos (there are pages more on YouTube). Some nudity, violence, general emotional carnage – click through for credits…

Cleansed in an institutional loft space – bullets scattered on the floor and a fluorescent table holding props and visible sound effects (such as the amplified snip of shears which impacts on the characters remotely).

Meanwhile, 4:48 Psychosis – which famously comes with no stage directions – is often reinvented as physical theatre / dance. This production shows how its angst can become unnecessarily amplified in the process, but there are inventive elements – and it’s surely the share-all challenge of Kane’s writing which has seen her become so popular – especially with younger audiences.

Stark lighting and casual clothes give this 4:48 (recently staged at the Barbican) a hard-edged clarity often lost in an anti-dramatic morass haphazardly punctuated by melodramatic gestures (more from same production). A script with no guide demands a lot of director and actor(s) – when they fail, it’s most often due to indulging themselves (directors with over-literal and/or reverent staging, actors treating the play’s supremely exposed internal landscape as one showboat breakdown scene).

Another very physical take – the strength here being (aside from being admirably well-drilled) that the actresses aren’t afraid to have fun – when 4:48 Psychosis is performed as a one-note piece on depression, it tries the patience (ha – ‘tries the patients’ would be a pretty good plot summary). In itself, this flatness, this difficulty to endure may even be a point worth making, – but it’s almost certainly unintended by most who expect the supposed verite / endless emoting of unleavened pain to hold an audience’s attention indefinitely…

Some of the more interesting productions step away from the script as monologue / chamber piece and flesh out as full ensemble – there’s something perverse about Kane’s painfully personal  confessional emerging from such a plethora of mouths, but there’s maybe also a nice feel for the splintering of self – or even a comfort in solidarity.

lines from blasted

In classics long after, quotables on May 20, 2010 at 6:34 pm

Blasted

Blasted‘s 1995 debut was one of those rare productions which salmon-leaps from the digestive tract of the review section to the higher functions of the headlines. Sexual violence, xenophobia, war crimes, a total breakdown of order in and outside of a hotel room  – the verdict was kneejerk, the play and its author demonised and/or pathologised.

I found it myself some years after this initial reflux had ebbed and time’s better counsel had dredged up and widely acknowledged the terrible tenderness beneath the shocking surface. The transgression was material, but the transcendence I’d read about eluded me. I wasn’t revulsed by the plot, but felt short-changed by the language, the extremity of the characters (not in their behaviour, but their abject, almost binary displays of power or weakness). The violence seemed to sweep everything but its own logic and imagery offstage. So, even with hindsight, even having absorbed the praise of those critics who’d begun by condemning, my first reading was wrong.

I see it differently now, woke up to the fact Kane was a writer free enough of ego to mainline ugly actions in an ugly fashion. As has been argued elsewhere, this is not to say pain is presented raw – the collision of worlds which makes Blasted‘s scene progression more dialectical than accumulative would be disengagingly ridiculous if not weighted just so – but that her judgement and vision are as important as her skill in witholding the artful arrangement of parts dramatists routinely use to shortcut and symbolise – Blasted has to be lived through, experienced. So, let’s…

“Doing to them what they done to us, what good is that? At home I’m clean. Like it never happened. Tell them you saw me. Tell them…you saw me.” (Soldier)

You can find a perfectly serviceable synopsis over at Wikipedia – I imagine the gist is well-known, but in the simplest of terms, a rape in a hotel room somehow abruptly allows the war raging outside to rush in like black water through a stress fracture. Carnage ensues. In this unedited 19-page interview (pdf), Kane reveals the surprisingly simple genesis for the play’s seisimic shift from naturalism to nightmare: “I switched on the news one night while I was having a break from writing, and there was a very old woman’s face, a woman of Srebrenica just weeping and weeping and looking into the camera…I thought: ‘So what could possibly be the connection between a common rape in a Leeds hotel room and what’s happening in Bosnia?’ And then suddenly this penny dropped and I thought: ‘Of course, it’s obvious. One is the seed and the other is the tree…’”

“Punish me or rescue me makes no difference I love you Cate tell him for me do it for me touch me Cate.” (Ian)

If critics mistook Blasted‘s radical commentary for rebellious posturing, Ian’s language from the off would aid that first impression – there’s barely a line uttered which wouldn’t qualify as hate speech (although this is supplemented by an almost cheerful acceptance of his own corruption, physical decay and imminent death). In manipulating the soft-hearted and muddle-headed Cate, the audience witness a horribly inevitable crime. But the aftermath is anything but, as a laconic soldier whose main motivation seems to be to share the atrocities he’s taken part in makes Ian the next victim, raping and blinding him in turn. A bomb breaches the walls, the soldier shoots himself and the last semblance of civilisation as we know it collapses into something between Beckett (minimal, timeless bleakness) and a snuff nature doc.

Blasted later

Undermain Theatre production (2004) Dallas Texas. Set design by Clare Floyd DeVries, photo by Katherine Owens.

 

Kane knew what she was doing: “You have a nice little box set in the studio set somewhere and you blow it up… For me the form did exactly mirror the content. And for me the form is the meaning of the play, which is that people’s lives are thrown into complete chaos with no reason whatsoever.” And always remember, for all this, the play retains a sliver of hope amid the splinters of the set – for survival, if nothing else.

“My brother’s got blind friends. You can’t give up.” (Cate)

here to start with sarah kane

In bio, classics long after on May 18, 2010 at 10:31 pm

Three month pre-development redraft of my play, ‘Mirror Modes’ finished yesterday and I’m officially back in the room.

So, next: the great lost hope of recent British drama. It’s sobering to wonder what more depth of impact Sarah Kane could have made to contemporary theatre had she lived longer. I don’t intend attempting an answer, and the five plays she left us make a good case for her protean unpredictability being precisely what we miss the most (although, in a different mood, I and many others might cite vertiginous vanity-free honesty and/or acid-wash emotional brutalism).

Sarah Kane

As per my MO, then, today I’ll offer a clutch of links to further info on her life and work before moving on to a read-thru of the plays with more links plus the pick of quotes from each. For B.A.S.I.C.S., find her wikipedia page above (itself linking to more resources such as Iain Fisher’s passionately put-together site, featuring production photos and multi-authored discussions of her work). For a reasoned and authoritative bio, see Aleks Sierz. Most personally, Mark Ravenhill revisits his relationship to her as living peer and immortal competitor.

And this brings us to the difficulty of engaging with her work on its own terms – from the hypocritical furore blown up by sensationalist press around her debut, Blasted, to the sad fact, the inescapable act of her suicide less than five years later, no writer of the Nineties and its In-Yer-Face tendency has been so lionised, romanticised, mystified. The testimony of those who knew her consistently reject this, and we must respect them.

Kane’s plays are amongst the most performed of any recent writer not because of her public or private life, not because they shocked (such currency loses worth fast), not because they were authenticated by her troubles, but because they used radical form to incise closer to life (not fantasise an elaborate shelter), precisely because the art was bigger than the artist, and – prosaically – because the words on the page still resonate with makers who find the same thing happens via stage to audience. Her career was brief, but her legacy phenomenal, the possibilities she exposed with her controlled explosions cracking open new paths for those who followed. That’s what I’m celebrating this week on Subjectiviste.

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