Archive for May, 2010|Monthly archive page

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.


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)


where now: funding, forts, futures, pasts

In life elsewhere on May 25, 2010 at 6:13 am


Thinking about how to shunt Subjectiviste forward, I’m adding performance video compilation posts (under the recurring title some productions) and stories from theatreland (links to news, reviews, interviews, etc – as where now). These will flank the ongoing core studies of plays and playwrights (expect Genet, Lorca, Churchill nextish), and I’m hoping I can mange one of each a week (hopelessly hopeful…)

Starting with economics, an American’s view of UK funding culture was slight, but triggered the kind of mutinous banquet that comment boxes can be at their best – my high point: “…the arguments have to be about what kind of civilised country we want to be.” (JHolloway)

In the real world, Brighton Festival entered it’s third or terminal week and, as one of the judges of the best new play in fest award I saw many, many pieces that I cannot talk about. But I am going to glance toward The Arts Desk’s article on I Am a Warehouse because I got to spend an evening exploring Newhaven Fort which was more fun than blogging by a factor of how-long-have-you-got?

Love or hate him, it’s time to say goodbye (or, um, get out, I guess) to The Times’ Benedict Nightingale, who wrote a quite-sweet-actually last column looking over his career (meanwhile, The Stage surveyed the position of the critic in 2010).

George Hunka angled David Mamet’s new book, Theatre, as a prism to scout the old master’s recent right turn and how that might tie to the wider mindset of American theatre circa now.

Finally, I wish I could have gone along to the ICA’s Futures and Pasts symposium, which hosted, and probably prodded at, possibly tickled, some of the wildest minds in live art. Read (or hear) Chris Goode’s thirty one-minute lectures for an idea (well, thirty ideas). Finally plus one: in a similar vein, why not mainline primary evidence from Forest Fringe’s Mayfest Microfest page? Energising times.

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‘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.