Breath and Light: Blasted, Sheffield Theatres and New Directions in the Staging of Sarah Kane

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Last month saw the curtain come down on Sheffield Theatres’ flagship season of Sarah Kane plays. Dr Nina Kane, artistic director of Cast-Off Drama and a specialist on the playwright, was in attendance and has produced a wide-ranging survey of the season. In this extract from a full essay to be published in the print edition, Kane focuses on Blasted, the work that electrified Britain’s theatre scene on its premiere in 1995.

Cate (Jessica Barden) and Ian (Martin Marquez) in Sheffield Theatres' production of Blasted.
Cate (Jessica Barden) and Ian (Martin Marquez) in Sheffield Theatres’ production of Blasted. Photography by Mark Douet.

Last month, the curtain came down on Sheffield Theatres’ flagship Sarah Kane season, programmed by Daniel Evans, who performed in the premieres of Cleansed (1998) and 4.48 Psychosis (2000). To Evans, the events served to underline the “indelible mark on British theatre” that Kane’s plays made, bringing into focus

[h]er visceral use of language, her experimentation with form and her conviction that it’s possible to represent anything and everything in the theatre.

The season bore homage to Evans’s early contact with Kane as a fellow theatre maker, and used this to positive effect. Programme notes included contributions from other actors who had worked with her and honoured Kane efficiently and respectfully, focusing the audience reader onto thinking about the work rather than her life. Evans made an excellent choice in bringing Richard Wilson (Blasted) and Charlotte Gwinner (Crave and 4.48 Psychosis) in as directors for the main plays of the season, allowing for fresh interpretations, whilst reserving one-off directed readings of Phaedra’s Love and Cleansed for himself. This ensemble ethos was a notable feature of the run and was clearly shared by directors and actors alike, who achieved a remarkable degree of cohesion, connection and warmth in the short rehearsal time they had together.

The performances were strongly acted and a pleasure to watch; the cast members’ reflective and considered contributions to the “talk back” sessions, appreciated by the theatre’s regular attendees. Houses were full most nights for the duration of the season, with many audience members seeing more than one play, some returning to see the same one more than once; many hurrying home in deep chatter enthused by what they’d seen; and others enjoying the intimacy of the venue’s cafes, waylaying the hard-working cast members at lunch or after the evening show with questions and opinions.

The ultimate triumph of the run lay in the fact that it successfully focused audiences onto the plays themselves offering a series of delicate, understated but intense renderings of the works, full of breath and light. More importantly, it demonstrated that Kane’s theatre has a transformative potential and puts directors, actors and audience members in a position where they have to look at themselves and make sense of their own lives through the work. As her brother and executor Simon Kane indicates in his programme notes: “The plays are as much about you as they are about her.”

So, how does the recent season help Sarah Kane’s theatre progress further into the twenty-first century? And why do theatre makers and audiences continue to engage so intensely with Kane’s plays?

Sarah Kane was a high-achieving and ambitious playwright of intense passion and intelligence, who set clear goals and fully understood the medium in which she worked. Educated in the English comprehensive state-school system of the 1980s, she was an active actor and director with Basildon Youth Theatre before studying for a BA in Theatre at Bristol University from 1989-92. This course was notoriously difficult to get onto, requiring three predicted “A” grades at A-level, and a successful audition and interview. Kane appears to have hit the ground running once there, playing the lead role of Bradshaw in Howard Barker’s Victory and writing monologues which she performed herself in the local pub theatre fringe and at the Edinburgh Festival in her first year. Her early scripts Comic Monologue, Starved and What She Said (included as one group in the Sick folio) were written at this time and mark an interest in themes relating to violence, the body and gender which she developed further in her later work. Narrated by a single character called Woman, Comic Monologue recounts an experience of date rape, Starved deals with issues of eating disorders and involuntary sectioning in hospital, and What She Said explores questions of bisexuality and lesbianism. The monologues bear witness to the interest in feminist theatre within the department at the time; an interest that Kane clearly shared, directing a performance of Franca Rame’s Lo Stupro (Rape) in her second year. Whilst an undergraduate, she approached agents, and sent the Sick folio to Mel Kenyon at the Royal Court Theatre in 1992. Whilst initially rejecting the manuscript, Kenyon was clearly interested enough in Kane’s potential to attend her MA showing a couple of years later, subsequently signing her up and becoming her literary agent. Kane also approached Sue Parrish of Sphinx Theatre (formerly the Women’s Theatre Group) at this time and later worked with the company on an adaptation of Medea.

She graduated from Bristol with a First, subsequently studying on the MA in Playwriting course at Birmingham University where she was taught by David Edgar and Clare McIntyre, writing the first two acts of Blasted there. Following its MA showing, the full first draft of the play was published in October 1994 by Pamela Edwardes in Frontline Intelligence 2: New Plays for the Nineties; a political anthology in which the editor positioned Blasted as being specifically concerned with war crimes. Kane agreed. When interviewed in 1997, she described how the form of Blasted was inspired by watching a woman in war-torn Bosnia on the television pleading for help, explaining:

The form is a direct parallel to the truth of the war it portrays – a traditional form is suddenly and violently disrupted by the entrance of an unexpected element that drags the characters and the play into a chaotic pit without logical explanation. In terms of Aristotle’s Unities, the time and action are disrupted while unity of place is retained. Which caused a great deal of offence because it implied a direct link between domestic violence in Britain and civil war in the former Yugoslavia. Blasted raised the question, “What does a common rape in Leeds have to do with mass rape as a war weapon in Bosnia?” And the answer appeared to be “Quite a lot”. The unity of place suggests a paper-thin wall between the safety and civilisation of peacetime Britain and the chaotic violence of civil war. A wall that can be torn down at any time, without warning.

(Sarah Kane, in Heidi Stephenson and Natasha Langridge, Rage and Reason: Women Playwrights on Playwrighting, Methuen Drama, 1997)

Kane’s plays effectively fold the distance between subject and object, reducing separation and detachment, and in their destruction of certainties, compel audiences to attend to questions of violence. Whilst watching the Sheffield production of Blasted (dir. Richard Wilson), I became aware of the power of Kane’s text to collapse conventional binaries and to bring people in close to its subject matter, and to each other. This was brought home to me through the power of James Cotterill’s set design which strongly evoked the presence of the “paper-thin wall”. The set, which depicted a hotel bedroom, contained within it two “offstage” areas: a hotel corridor opening out onto a cul-de-sac of closed doors; and a bathroom whose entrance was technically “offstage” but whose internal dimensions were inferred as running alongside the wall of the visible stage area. In the early scenes, the set conveyed a Naturalist interior which was reinforced through the action, but at the end of scene two, the plates started to shift.

We now found ourselves witness to a knocking ritual is enacted between Ian, a middle-aged, alcoholic, journalist dying of lung cancer and a soldier, who brings with him the pain, rage and unrelenting violence of the war zone he is permanently in. Before the Soldier enters, he and Ian knock either side of the door for a time in a tense, and potentially ridiculous, exchange – an exchange that in some ways suggests an impasse. The knocking is a recognisable theatrical trope that registers disquiet – from the absence of Harold Pinter’s Dumb Waiter to the knock of the returning dead in 20th-century Irish drama. Every echo of every knock drew attention to the incongruity between the onstage architecture and its layout. On closer inspection, it became clear: the bathroom and the room off the corridor outside were occupying the same space. When Cate flees the Soldier – disappearing, as if down a plughole, into the unseen bathroom – the set becomes the vessel of the play’s turn to magical realism. As the knocking reverberated on the hollow flats of the set, it accented sounds from elsewhere in the theatre and beyond; water pipes, chatter, the hum of cars coming through the theatre wall – sounds unnoticed until this moment, though they had been present throughout.

As the artifice of the set became apparent and the soldier burst in through the door, an elderly woman sitting next to me on the bench in the audience instinctively huddled closer, gently pressing her shoulder and thigh against my side in an ambivalent gesture of protection, kindness and fear. I moved slightly and she persisted. It was a curious tension and I spent the duration of the scene both physically accepting and resisting the gesture, trying to understand, decode and reciprocate somehow in a way that reassured or “answered” her; my focus split between what was happening on the stage whilst also engaging in what was happening next to me in the audience. Her actions were not aggressive – rather, compulsive, and totally integral to her witnessing of the play and the need to act on it. Not only were we complicit in the drama onstage; we were now involved in our own private drama of how to respond to its violence.

As a play, Blasted has received more attention than any other of Kane’s works, and it is a play that conventionally evokes a strong response. It received its professional premiere at the Royal Court Theatre, London in January 1995; directed by James MacDonald and programmed by Stephen Daldry in a “quiet spot” of the calendar three weeks after Christmas. The vitriolic, hysterical and misogynist witch-hunt that attended its opening, led by Daily Mail commentator Jack Tinker who called the work a “disgusting feast of filth”, are one of the greatest shames of the London theatre in recent times. Scholar Mary Luckhurst wrote of the affair:

Tinker’s assault is extraordinary not just for its aesthetic conservatism but also for its expression of personal prejudices. Tinker declares war on Kane’s youth, talent, intelligence, sanity (linked by implication to her sex) and morality; he criticises the play’s failure to adhere to realist conventions and finally condemns it as utterly worthless. As an outburst, it is extreme for the way it pathologises the playwright, yet was matched in tone by other attackers, who became much more obsessed with passing judgement on the author than on the play.

(Mary Luckhurst and Jane M. Moody, Theatre and Celebrity in Britain, 1660-1999, Palgrave MacMillan, 2005).

Elsewhere, I have suggested that Jack Tinker’s irrational response to Blasted could be explained in part to depression and unresolved grief following the death of his 23 year-old daughter Charlotte, who suffered from petit-mal and died through drowning in a bathtub during a fit. Tinker had written publicly about his daughter’s death in The Independent six months before the opening night of Blasted and his writing on it suggested that he was still in deep mourning. The content of the play might have offered “mirrors” to his own experiences and detached state; the collapse of the theatre picture before his eyes precipitating the collapse of his critical distance and emotional security. This would account for the “fight or flight” speed with which he exited the theatre at the interval, telephoning his old friend the editor, and venting his rage through his “disgusting feast of filth” diatribe in white-hot heat – like Lear screaming at “the Blasted heath”.

Whatever the reasons, the damaging effect of the early press responses on production and scholarship of Kane’s work was catastrophic; likewise the erroneous co-option of her work into the reductive media discourse engineered by Dr. Aleks Sierz known as “In-Yer-Face Theatre”. This discourse was promulgated repetitively throughout the noughties, is now increasingly disregarded by Kane scholars, and was never too popular amongst theatre-makers anyway. Whilst many countries in the world embraced Sarah Kane and staged her plays regularly throughout the nineties and noughties, Britain has had fewer runs of it than most, largely due to the dominance of media narratives (the “Tinker-Sierzian discourse”) on its reception, and the plays being misunderstood or tarred with a negative and superficial brush. Although many of the original press reviewers have now revised their initial opinions of Blasted, confessing that their behaviour was infantile and reactionary, few have actually acknowledged how devastating their responses must have been for Sarah Kane personally and that far from being “an exciting theatre moment” as some still suggest, it was in fact a shameful and vicious attack.

On writing about the media response to Blasted, Kane’s friend and fellow dramatist Elana Greenfield recalled a story Kane told her about a man who had dropped dead the day after giving up smoking due to shock from the withdrawal of toxins. Greenfield concluded:

She took the glamour and titillation out of the construct… and even more impressively in her play, she managed to present the linking of sex and violence as a lamentable and pathetic perversion of the longing for kindness and perhaps love. She deprived people point blank of their daily poison and I guess they were afraid they were going to die.

(Elana Greenfield, Kane in Babel, The Brooklyn Rail, Dec 2008-Jan 2009)

Another aspect of Blasted’s treatment of sex that I suggest troubled the critics, was Kane’s centring of female jouissance as a political challenge to male abuse and domination. She dramatizes this through Cate’s fits:

The tension of the first half of the play, this appalling social, psychological and sexual tension, is almost a premonition of the disaster to come. And when it does come, the structure fractures to allow it entry. The play collapses into one of Cate’s fits.

(Kane in Stephenson and Langridge, Rage and Reason, 1997)

This “collapse” is strategic. It turns the violence enacted by the male protagonist Ian back onto him through allowing the entry of the Soldier who forces him to confront the true meaning of his violence. It also redresses the sexual power imbalance we witness earlier through Ian’s attacks on Cate, by the linking of her fits to masturbation:

Cate: The world don’t exist not like this.

Looks the same but –

Time slows down.

[…]

It’s like that when I touch myself.

Ian is embarrassed.

(Kane, Blasted, scene one)

Cate’s fits represent a disappearance into a private, unconscious state, which is at some level hysterical, at another empowering. Cate’s alignment of her petit-mal with masturbation posits her fits as a place of jouissance. In stating that the play “collapses into one of Cate’s fits”, Kane subtly indicates to the reader to look beyond an image of female hysteria and to read back into the text to find its more pleasurable connections. Thus Cate reclaims her sexuality and agency in the face of violence throughout the play, emerging as a survivor, not a victim, her humanity intact. In her discussion of scene 2, Kane continued:

‘I … picked a moment in the play, I thought I’ll plant a bomb and blow the whole fucking thing up. I loved the idea of it as well, that you have a nice little box set in a studio theatre somewhere and you blow it up. You know you go to the Bush Theatre and you go in and you see the set… and there’s always this longing for it to blow up, so it was such a joy for me to be able to do that.’

(Interview with Sarah Kane in conversation with Dan Rebellato, Royal Holloway, London, 1998).

Thus Kane uses fracturing and the centring of jouissance in Cate to open up the stage to new possibilities. It was therefore notable, and regrettable, that Wilson chose to omit the lines “It’s like that when I touch myself” from his adaptation of Blasted. It was not clear why this decision was taken, but it was problematic in denying the adult character of Cate her sexual agency and in removing the subtlety which sets the play’s fracture not in a man-made bomb, but more abstractly in female-centred jouissance and the strategic deconstruction of a paper-thin mise-en-scène.

This was not the only problem with Wilson’s direction of Cate. Equally problematic was the decision to present Cate as if she had learning difficulties in the opening scenes. As actress Jessica Barden is apparently not disabled; and as learning difficulties are complex and cannot be adequately conveyed by reduced signifiers, her attempts to “play” this resulted in a rather bizarre and jarring presentation that largely consisted in her talking like a child with exaggerated slowness. She was clearly uncomfortable with this, and it got in the way of what was an otherwise excellent portrayal of character. It was a decision that worked to the production’s detriment – firstly, because there are a number of excellent companies working with professional actors with learning disabilities in the Yorkshire area, and if Cate were a character with learning disabilities, it would have been better to hire an actress who had them, to avoid parody. Secondly, there is nothing in the script to suggest that Cate actually does have learning disabilities, other than Ian’s abusive use of the term “Joey” to make fun of her stammer. It was a common misreading of the character from the critics of the 1995 opening night where reviewers insultingly used phrases such as “simple” and “retard” to suggest she had learning disabilities or was of low intelligence. Kane herself refuted both readings stating directly:

‘I don’t think Cate is simple. Cate constantly surprises me … I see her as possibly the most intelligent of them all.’

(Kane, in Graham Saunders, Love me or Kill Me, Manchester University Press, 2002)

Despite this, Barden won through in her representation of Cate, particularly in the latter scenes of the play where her independence from Ian, her moral conviction and impulse towards nurture, ritual, love and survival were portrayed with clarity and intelligence.

Equally strong were the scenes between Ian and the Soldier. Mark Stanley was heart-breaking and terrifying in his representation of a man so lost to war that violence, grief and loss consume his every action. His interpretation of the role was intelligent and avoided cliché. Instead, Stanley’s representation served to bring the philosophical classicism of the character strongly to the fore and it was a strangely heroic and futile classicism that made the violence of the soldier’s actions towards Ian understandable – and his suicide inevitable. Martin Marquez was equally compelling, and Wilson is to be commended for the emotional intensity of the work, and the ensemble he built between the actors.

Twenty years after Blasted shattered Britain’s theatre landscape, the Sheffield Theatres season has shown that her work has lost none of that raw power. Daniel Evans and his team have successfully introduced her work to new audiences while reminding those familiar with her plays that there are fresh interpretations and readings to be drawn. Her work not only retains the power to invigorate our theatres; it also retains the power to transform lives.

Kane’s discussion of other performances from the season – including Cleansed and Crave – will be available in the full essay, soon to be published in Litro‘s print edition.

Nina Kane

About Nina Kane

Dr. Nina Kane is a teacher, performer, workshop facilitator, researcher and Artistic Director of Cast-Off Drama – www.castoffdrama.blogspot.com. She is a dramaturgical specialist on the theatre of Sarah Kane and her 2013 doctoral thesis “F – F – Felt it.” Breathing Feminist, Queer and Clown Thinking into the Practice and Study of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed and Blasted can be downloaded from the University of Huddersfield Repository - http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/19287/ . She holds a Masters with Distinction in Writing for Performance and an MA Cantab in English from King’s College Cambridge. She is currently developing a dramaturgy for Sarah Kane’s Crave, and is co-authoring an anthology for Cambridge Scholars Publishing entitled Reflections on Female and Trans* Masculinities, due out October 2015.

Dr. Nina Kane is a teacher, performer, workshop facilitator, researcher and Artistic Director of Cast-Off Drama – www.castoffdrama.blogspot.com. She is a dramaturgical specialist on the theatre of Sarah Kane and her 2013 doctoral thesis “F – F – Felt it.” Breathing Feminist, Queer and Clown Thinking into the Practice and Study of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed and Blasted can be downloaded from the University of Huddersfield Repository - http://eprints.hud.ac.uk/19287/ . She holds a Masters with Distinction in Writing for Performance and an MA Cantab in English from King’s College Cambridge. She is currently developing a dramaturgy for Sarah Kane’s Crave, and is co-authoring an anthology for Cambridge Scholars Publishing entitled Reflections on Female and Trans* Masculinities, due out October 2015.

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