When Sarah Kane’s first play, Blasted, debuted at London’s Royal Court theatre in January 1995, critics fell over each to hurl invective, labelling it with adjectives like ‘disturbing’, ‘degrading’ and ‘depressing’. Some audience members walked out, which was a ‘strong statement’ in a theatre so small, according to critic Aleks Sierz; such was the divisive nature of Kane’s ‘in-yer-face mode’ of theatre, a provocative and often explicit movement that arose in Britain in the 1990s. Is Tony McCleane Fay, director and adaptor of a new production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, worried about garnering the same sort of reaction? ‘No, I don’t think so,’he replies, ‘current theatre audiences are a lot more clued in’. McCleane Fay and his team have endeavoured ‘to make it beautiful’, which is no easy task when you consider the subject matter.
In brief, and according to the original play blurb, Cleansed is about a group of people who try to ‘save themselves through love’. Originally set in an ‘institution designed to rid society of its undesirables’, the play depicts a taboo-busting bond between Grace her sibling/lover Graham, a romance between a pragmatist, Rod, and a romantic, Carl, a teacher/pupil relationship between Grace and a disturbed young boy, Robin, and the sadistic ‘doctor’ Tinker’s seduction of an exotic dancer.
Having already separately directed Kane’s Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, McCleane Fay felt ‘compelled to direct [Cleansed] as I believed I could bring something new to it and to complete, in a roundabout way, the trilogy’. Indeed, his version makes it new in a number of ways – the most significant being the decision to set it in the writer’s mind. Kane (who was, in that fantastically vague term, ‘troubled’, and who ultimately took her own life at the age of 28) often featured herself in her work: ‘it is said that she wrote herself into each play… Cate in Blasted, Grace in Cleansed, etc.,’ McCleane Fay explains. And so, he weaved in ‘textual elements of some of Kane’s other works in this production, notably text from Crave and 4.48 Psychosis’. Played by final year Drama & Theatre Studies student Michelle Fox, Kane is quite literally placed centre stage, an unseen watcher presiding over the play like a restless, angry spirit. As well as offering a unique theatrical experience, situating the play in Kane’s mind also feeds into the set design, lending itself to a ‘clean look’, with a ‘stark white set with few props and furniture’. Film is projected onto a giant backdrop, complimenting the action on stage, and live music is used to create ambiance and, sometimes, denote violence. It proves an immersive experience; it is the Granary theatre, but not as we know it.
Aleks Sierz has pointed out how reviewers of Kane’s work have often found it easier to ‘list the play’s contents… than to appreciate the disciplined savagery of its language’. Many reviews for the original production of Cleansed focused on ‘listing the play’s atrocities: Graham’s eye is injected with heroin, Carl’s tongue is sliced off, a [stick] is shoved up his rectum…’ However, beneath the tabloid-baiting catalogue of ‘atrocities’ are fundamental, universal human issues, like the vulnerability of allowing oneself to love another. Kane said that ‘when you love obsessively, you lose your sense of self. And if you lose the object of your love, you have no resources to fall back on. It can completely destroy you’. Cleansed, she said, was ‘written by someone who believed utterly in the power of love’.
It can seem hard to believe now that Kane’s work could have inspired such an extreme reaction, with the walk outs, and the leering tabloid headlines (she was even dubbed, in tabloid-ese, ‘RAPE PLAY GIRL’). Theatre is regarded these days, I would argue, as a safe medium (when was the last time you heard of someone walking out of a play?) and Kane’s work has been fully integrated into the mainstream, with plays like Phaedra’s Love being taught at university level. However, the version of Cleansed currently showing at the Granary offers a reminder of the visceral power of her writing, with the dark-as-coal subject matter often giving way to moments of strange beauty. It’s fitting when you discover that the writer’s favourite band was Joy Division, a group who also created ‘something beautiful… out of a feeling of despair’. This, Kane believed, was ‘the most hopeful, life affirming thing a person can do’.
Cleansed runs until Saturday December 8th at The Granary Theatre.