On Tuesday afternoon we saw Cleansed, the first of the two Sarah Kane plays being produced at the Fringe by Fear No Colours. This afternoon we will be seeing the other, Phaedra’s Love. Here’s the promotional blurb: “News. Another rape. Child murdered. War somewhere. Few thousand jobs gone. But none of this matters – because it’s a royal birthday. When Queen Phaedra falls madly in love with her stepson Hippolytus, catastrophe is inevitable. The prince has no interest in anyone’s affections, and his apathy soon throws the nation’s morals into irreparable turmoil. Sarah Kane’s dark comedy turns Greek tragedy inside out – in surprisingly literal ways! Strongly visceral and experiential performance with movement and video.”
As I mentioned earlier in the week, I was inspired to book for these two plays on the strength of finally having seen Sarah Kane’s Blasted in Sheffield in February. Phaedra’s Love looks like it should be a very dark comedy indeed – I’ll be fascinated to see how the production treads the balance between shock and humour. It starts at 16:15 at C Nova Studio 2, so please come back around 5.30 to see our reactions. Our next show preview blog will be available too.
More shock than humour in many ways, but another excellent production from this company. A fantastic central performance from Callum Partridge as Hippolytus, a more charmless and depraved bloke it would be hard to imagine. What I love about this company is how they use every available inch of acting space and fill it to the gunwales. They portray the violence of the story with in your face fearlessness, and where they have to leave realism behind, represent Kane’s excessive imagination with an ingenuity that’s inspired yet still feels pretty disgusting. And it’s all performed with immaculate control. I hope they go from strength to strength and I look forward to seeing what they do next. PS Happy birthday Callum!
Earlier this year we went to Sheffield and saw Blasted as part of their Sarah Kane season. It was the first time we had seen a Kane play – I had always wanted to – and I found it fascinating. It stimulated my interest in her work, so when I saw that Fear No Colours were performing two of Sarah Kane’s plays in Edinburgh this summer, I knew I had to book for both of them. So the first is Cleansed, at 13:00 at C Nova – Studio 1. Here’s the blurb: “Sarah Kane’s darkly passionate play turns the heart into a torture camp where losing love is a fate worse than death. And this love is the most violent thing in the world. Loss of love is the loss of self, and anything may be endured to avoid that. In a torture institution of the heart, the indestructibility of love creates a waking nightmare where not even death offers a way out. Explore the violence of love and love’s catastrophe in a language that pushes the boundaries of theatrical representation to the absolute extreme. Welcome to our sensible hell.”
Formed in 2015 by students and graduates from the University of Glasgow’s theatre department this will be Fear No Colours’ first appearance at the Edinburgh Fringe, and I’m looking forward to seeing the same group of young actors perform both plays in daily repertoire. That must be a challenge! It’s a fairly shocking play to read so I will be interested to see how the shock on the page translates to the stage. Check back shortly after 2.15 to see our reactions, and also to discover what delights await us next!
Was that worth seeing or was that worth seeing! Amazingly mature and technically brilliant performances from this young cast. This is very physical theatre in a confined space but they work every available inch of it with huge invention and terrific control. Sarah Kane doesn’t give you much to work on regarding stage directions but I can’t imagine how this play could have been better staged. If you like a challenge in the theatre this is a must see. Congrats all round!
Thanks 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!)
Blasted 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.
There’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.
Blasted 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”.
I’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.
It’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.
The 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.
Earlier 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.
One 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.
There 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.