Review – Blasted, Sarah Kane Season, Studio at the Crucible, Sheffield, 21st February 2015

BlastedThanks to Jack Tinker, theatre critic of the Daily Mail from 1972 to 1996, Sarah Kane’s Blasted will always be referred to as a “feast of filth”, a beautifully alliterative phrase dismissing what he regarded as “a play which appears to know no bounds of decency yet has no message to convey by way of excuse”. I always enjoyed reading Jack Tinker. He had a very entertaining style, and for many years was the only possible reason for buying the Daily Mail. Now that the Mail’s theatre crits are written by Quentin Letts, there’s no reason at all to buy it. Of course, Sarah Kane got her own back on him in her own inimitable style by naming a sadistic concentration camp manager in her play Cleansed after him. It’s what he would have wanted (not!)

Jessica BardenBlasted first saw light of day in 1995 at a time when Mrs Chrisparkle and I rarely saw plays in London. I remember the controversy about it at the time, and hoped that one day I would get to see the disgraceful filth for myself (having researched stage censorship as a postgraduate, dirty plays have always been my *thing*). Lo and behold, twenty years later, the Sheffield Crucible decide to mount a Sarah Kane season. I’m sure the fact that Daniel Evans, the Crucible’s Artistic Director, was in many of Miss Kane’s original productions, will have been a contributing factor to this decision. After a little research, I discovered we were to be treated to nudity, oral sex, cannibalism, racism, rape (twice), and other assorted violence. I admit, I do like to be challenged in the theatre.

Mark StanleyThere’s a very interesting introductory note by her brother Simon in the programme. I expect you know, but just to fill in the gaps if you don’t, Sarah Kane suffered from severe depression throughout her short life and committed suicide in 1999 at the age of 28. Before she died, she left instructions that no one should ever write a biography of her, she destroyed her diaries, and requested that none of her friends should ever publish any letters of hers. Those wishes have all been respected; but as a result there has been much in the way of guesswork and fantasy in trying to fill the consequent knowledge vacuum about her life.

Martin MarquezBlasted is, in many ways, an extraordinary play, taking the relatively simple basis of a couple staying in a hotel room, and then subsequently blowing it apart – literally. So much of what it’s about appears to be in what’s not said. Again, from Simon Kane’s introduction: “she once told me that everything you need to know to understand the plays is contained within the plays themselves; anything else is as likely to be misleading as it is to be enlightening. So when you’re watching them, keep an open mind…. the plays are as much about you as they are about her”. Wasn’t it Ronan Keating (I think it was) who said, “you say it best when you say nothing at all”? Much of Blasted is littered with silences and pauses, enough to make even Pinter believe the actors had forgotten their lines. But whereas in Pinter, the silences are sometimes so portentous – and loud almost – that they’re like the contributions of additional invisible characters; in Blasted, the silences are just that – moments when there isn’t anything to say, because the characters are merely thinking, or waiting, or daydreaming, or conspiring. It feels like a very realistic conversational style in a way that Pinter often (to me) feels very artificial. The speech patterns throughout the play have a surprising delicacy despite the harshness of the actual words being spoken. Sarah Kane had a remarkable feel for language.

In a nutshell, Ian and Cate are staying in a hotel room in Leeds. He’s much older than she is, and has poor health, no doubt in part due to too much smoking and drinking; she has some form of learning disability causing her to stutter when stressed and occasionally faint. They’ve obviously had some kind of relationship in the past and it quickly becomes clear that he is hoping for lots of sex from their hotel stay and she is hoping to avoid it. In the world outside there is warfare, with soldiers on the streets; in the world inside there is the more conventional champagne and room service. The following morning it’s obvious that he’s raped her, and she takes her revenge in a number of ways (especially painful ones). She escapes through the bathroom window, and when a knock comes at the door, Ian, expecting a waiter with more food and drink, lets in a fully armed soldier, desperate for food, and seemingly ready to kill. A mortar bomb blasts through the wall (a literally smashing special effect), and the ordinary, unremarkable hotel room is transformed into Armageddon. Facing very little resistance, the soldier rapes Ian, then sucks out his eyes and eats them. The next scene shows the soldier having committed suicide, and Cate returned with a baby, that she has been given on the street to rescue. The baby dies, Cate buries it under the floorboards; then there are some short scenes featuring Ian in various stages of distress, including digging up the baby’s body and eating it. Cate appears one last time with some food and drink which she shares with Ian. Curtain. As we got up from our seats at the end of the play, Mrs C turned to me and said, “Well, Leeds has gone down a bit”.

IanI’m getting a number of references here. Not only do you have Pinteresque dialogue, there’s some Edward Bond with the dead baby (Saved), there’s Gloucester’s eyes being put out (King Lear), Ian’s head alone being visible above the floorboards suggested to me Winnie being buried up to her neck in Beckett’s Happy Days, and the cannibalism brought to mind certain religious rituals. If everything you need to know to understand the play is contained within it, then you have to piece together the clues from what you hear and what you see. Thus clarity in the direction and presentation is absolutely vital. The clarity of the spoken word was excellent – I heard every word that every character said because they were enunciated to perfection. However, visually, I’m sorry to say I think this is where this production slightly falls down.

CateIt’s directed by the redoubtable Richard Wilson, who knows a thing or two about modern texts and bringing life to difficult drama. I thought the first two scenes, with just Ian and Cate, were clear, powerful, full of tension and dark humour; but once the soldier had arrived the clarity started to wane. Things that should have been fully visible were obscured. Although we were one of the first people in to the Studio to “bags” our good seats (reasonably central, more or less eye level with the actors), from our viewpoint (and I’m sure for many people) the soldier’s dead body was obstructed by an overturned table. As neither of us were familiar with the play, we couldn’t work out what had happened to him. I guessed he was dead, but how? Mrs C could see his leg; I could see his leg and some blood, but neither of us could see the gun that he was apparently holding. Kane’s characters don’t remark on the body; it’s not as though Cate trips over him and says, “oh I see the soldier is dead, did you kill him or did he shoot himself?” That turned into an unnecessary mystery for us.

Ian and CateThe play contains a lot of graphic images and gruesome content, all of which contribute to Tinker’s feast of filth. But in Richard Wilson’s production all this tough material was staged in an extraordinarily discreet way. It’s as though Mr Wilson has done his best to make the play acceptable for a Women’s Institute coach party. For me it felt almost sanitised. The final scenes where Ian is, inter alia, masturbating, strangling himself, defecating, laughing hysterically, having a nightmare, and hugging the dead soldier gave Mrs C the impression that Ian had fallen into some kind of general madness, and made me think he was trying to relieve his intense hunger. Of course, it’s fine for two people to interpret what they see differently. But because some of these actions took place in hidden corners of the set, it wasn’t easy to draw a conclusion as to what you were actually seeing.

SoldierEarlier in the play, when Ian takes his clothes off, faces Cate and tells her to “put your mouth on me”, he stands at an angle where I would estimate maybe a maximum of 10% of the audience could see what happened (if anything did). The scene where Cate bites his penis in revenge, the other masturbation scenes, the soldier’s rape and the brief defecation scene are all staged so that you can’t really see what’s going on. Now I don’t wish to sound prurient, but Sarah Kane’s text and stage directions don’t pull any punches and I would have thought that the additional visual shock element would have been much truer to her intentions. Considering the subject matter, I just found the whole presentation, using discreet angles, and obstructing sight-lines, remarkably coy.

Ian and SoldierOne thing that was made very clear from the play – and the production – is that rape is an act of power, not of sex. It’s used as a tool to dominate, both by the pathetic Ian and the murdering machine that is the soldier. The soldier’s behaviour with Ian, from urinating on his pillow (also shown discreetly) to raping him, reminded me of two dogs, working out which one was the higher in the pecking order. But why did the soldier commit suicide? After all, he was riding high with power, and everything was going his way. But he was also devastated at the loss of his girlfriend, due to her being raped and murdered by another soldier. That’s why he did what he did to Ian. It was like passing on the baton in a relay. I also have a theory that there may be a connection between the otherwise unexplained war on the streets outside, and its incursion into the hotel room, with Sarah Kane’s own state of mind. Maybe she saw the warfare as all the darkness of depression that’s within constant touching distance, whilst the hotel room is a kind of sanctuary, a scene of normality. After Ian has desecrated this haven by committing rape, the forces of mental darkness encroach the room, both in the form of the soldier and in the mortar blast that takes away the wall. Or this could be precisely the kind of guesswork that Simon Kane believes to be unhelpful.

Cate and babyThere would have to be a huge sense of trust between the three actors to convey the content of such a vivid and daring piece of writing. Jessica Barden as Cate stood out for me as an immensely strong yet fragile creation, as pale as a porcelain doll, concealing her emotions behind an exterior of pure practicality, making the apparent inconsistencies within the character appear perfectly reasonable. Her chilling, mocking, slightly unhinged laugh, which she can turn on or off in an instant, provides the biggest clue to her personality. A very unsettling, unpredictable and amazingly effective performance. Martin Marquez is an excellent Ian, a moral lowlife throwing out racist and homophobic insults like confetti, wheedling out the occasional “I love you” to Cate, (which sometimes you believe and sometimes you don’t), living his life selfishly as he expects it not to last much longer. Like all bullies, when confronted with a stronger force he just caves in. It’s hard to make such an unpleasant character the object of your sympathy, but Mr Marquez makes Ian so utterly pathetic, especially at the end, that I think he succeeds. Mark Stanley’s soldier is an excellent study in animalistic brutality whilst still believing in his ability to love; a truly ominous outside influence that breaks and enters the real world with devastating effect.

At an hour and three quarters with no interval, it’s certainly an intense experience, but thrilling too. This was the final performance of this run, but if you’re up for it, there’s more to come in the Sarah Kane season in March. This is an excellent opportunity to judge for yourself her place in modern drama. Give it a go!

PS. Richard Wilson sat behind us for this performance. Before it started, part of me was itching to turn around and let out a huge “I don’t belieeeeeeeeve it!” just like Father Ted did when he kept bumping into him. However, Mr Wilson has that serious look that implies he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so I thought discretion was the better part of valour. Instead, I resolved to tell him afterwards what a terrific production it was. Trouble is, for the reasons mentioned earlier on, I didn’t think it was that terrific a production, so for the moment, Mr Wilson and I remain strangers.

Production photos by Mark Douet.

Review – Straight, Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 10th November 2012

StraightWhenever I go to the Studio in Sheffield, I’m always amazed at how versatile a space it is. Like the Menier Chocolate Factory, every time you see a different show, the whole layout has changed. For D C Moore’s new play, the entire length of the wall opposite the entrance door has been given over to the set, a wonderfully convincing layout of a studio apartment – bedroom, living room, kitchen and bathroom (off) – just a bit of extra width and you would think it was absolutely for real. I loved the attention to detail of what was in the cupboards (they had those Nairn oatcake biscuits in all the flavours; I wonder if one of the cast or crew is a coeliac). You are asked to leave the auditorium for the (necessarily long) interval so that when you return the way it has been changed for the final scene has a terrific impact. Hats off to designer James Cotterill for his superb sets.

Henry Pettigrew This is the third D C Moore play we’ve seen. We thought Town was a beautifully crafted, rather sad play about someone returning home, and Honest a superb one-man play set (and performed) in a pub. “Straight” shares some common themes with these earlier plays, such as dealing with hidden secrets, and the responsibilities of telling the truth. It’s based on a film, Humpday, which I haven’t seen, but having read its wikipedia entry I can see that the story of the play seems pretty true to the original film, but with a couple of additional twists at the end (which makes the story far more interesting, to be honest.)

Jessica RansomBriefly, two old friends, Lewis and Waldorf, meet again after about ten years absence, get drunk and/or stoned on a night out and, inspired by one of Waldorf’s one-night stands, take a bet to perform in an amateur gay porn film. With each other. Penetrative sex, apparently; and they’re not gay. There’s no question that D C Moore is an exciting, original author and he creates moments of agonising self-revelation on stage. My personal main problem with this play is that I found the story rather hard to believe; and I also feel that the structure of the play is somewhat lumpy and that the story does not flow very well. The play culminates in an incredibly funny and cringe-inducing scene that deservedly brings the house down and ends with a serious and cryptic tone; but I sense that somehow the previous scenes have been pieced together backwards in order to get to that required conclusion. As a result there are some passages and plot developments that don’t really go anywhere, and a few character inconsistencies that tend to make you lose faith in the overall integrity of the piece. Mrs Chrisparkle accused the end of being a cop-out, deliberately vague and inconclusive. I’ve re-read the end a few times (the programme contains the script) and I do find it frustrating – I’d rather like the writer to commit himself to how he thinks life will go on in the future, but he doesn’t. I suppose it’s for us to decide; but I’m not sure I can really be bothered.

Philip McGinley Having said all that, I don’t want you to think that it’s not up to much, because actually it’s a very funny, entertaining and revealing play, directed with warmth and feeling by Richard Wilson and with four excellent performances. Henry Pettigrew as Lewis has just the right mixture of sincerity and self-doubt, and his easily abused open nature is very believable. I relished his superb comic timing and he held the audience’s attention with ease. Jessica Ransom as his wife Morgan has a brilliant way with her eyes to show surprise, dismay and the hundred other emotions that the disruption of her easy life with Lewis now requires. She too has a guilty secret and her scene with Lewis before the interval is played with beautiful control and sad tenderness. Her journey from a relaxed if a bit complacent partner to someone who’s had all the certainty removed from her life is very moving.

Jenny RainsfordPhilip McGinley (great as Mossop in Hobson’s Choice) is Waldorf, a libidinous louche loner who you suspect has shagged his way around the world just because he could. He reminded me strongly of an omnisexual university friend – you know the type. He plays the role of semi-unwanted guest with roguish charm and is completely believable. Suffice to say Messrs McGinley and Pettigrew together enact a comic and theatrical tour-de-force in the final scene, and make the most of the comic embarrassment of their situation – it’s superbly well done. The final member of the quartet, Jenny Rainsford as Steph, appears only relatively briefly (which is a shame) and does an absolutely perfect interpretation of a stoned art student. Her voice and mannerisms were accurate to a T.

We were quite surprised that it wasn’t a full house on Saturday night, as normally the Studio is packed. This is definitely a production to see, if you enjoy a bit of shock, a bit of cringe and a lot of laughs. Just don’t think too deeply about the plot but revel in the performances and you’ll have a great time.

Review – Twelfth Night, RSC at the Duke of York’s London

Twelfth NightWe’d seen Twelfth Night a couple of years ago in the gardens of Wadham College Oxford, performed by the Oxford Shakespeare Company, who we try to see each year. They had an outrageous Malvolio. Very funny, very camp, and when he thought Olivia was in love with him he basically came on cross-gartered and wearing precious little else – a thong maybe.

Richard Wilson I wasn’t expecting Richard Wilson’s Malvolio to wear just a thong, and I was right. His Malvolio’s cross-garters are the original yellow tights with garters criss-crossed over them. Very eye catching and unattractive. Along with the rest of his interpretation of the role, it was spot on. This Malvolio was pompous, not because he was sneery, but because he took his role as the head of Olivia’s household seriously. He is a serious, sombre, puritan person. After he has been tricked, he is a completely broken man. This Malvolio is more sinned against than sinning, and you come away from the production sorry for him and realising that the jolly jape against him was really rather cruel.

Alexandra GilbreathI particularly enjoyed Olivia’s (Alexandra Gilbreath) transformation from grieving sister to girlish glee as she fancies Cesario (Viola dressed as a boy). When she sees both Viola and Sebastian together, and she’s happy to fancy Sebastian instead, you realise that her ability to transfer her love from one person says something about how deep her love is; or isn’t. Jo Stone-Fewings Jo Stone-Fewings’ Orsino, however, is perfectly happy to love Viola, even though he’s always thought of her as Cesario. Where he must have loved the personality, Olivia had loved the body. If Orsino and Olivia had got it together they probably would have disappointed each other.

Richard McCabe Great production; inventive staging; programme notes affirm that Illyia is modern day Albania, and the set, costumes and scenes are full of Turkish and Central Asian motifs. Miltos Yerolemou as Feste actually makes you laugh – very hard for a Shakespearean clown. Personally I find the character of Sir Toby Belch an irritant; if I’d wanted Shakespearean puns and drunkenness I could have stayed as home. James FleetAs it is, Richard McCabe made him very watchable; and James Fleet’s Aguecheek was decently ineffectually vain whilst remaining credible. An appreciative and well-behaved audience, they kept their whooping for the curtain call. What is it with whooping in the audience nowadays? If it’s THAT good, you can shout the occasional Bravo. It isn’t bear-baiting, it’s The Theatre.