Breath and Light: New Directions in the Staging of Sarah Kane

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Blasted
Jessica Barden as Cate in Blasted, part of Sheffield Theatres’ Sarah Kane season earlier this year. Photo by Mark Douet.

2015 is a banner year for devotees of Sarah Kane, marking as it does the twentieth anniversary of the Royal Court premiere of her electrifying Blasted. The occasion presents a renewed interest in the playwright’s work in the United Kingdom and beyond. Just last week, Collide Theatre brought a site-specific production of 4.48 Psychosis to the crypt under St Pancras Old Church; next month, new theatre company Fear No Colour are bringing a version of Phaedra’s Love to C Nova in Edinburgh; it has also been announced that soon Defunkt Theatre will be bringing Blasted to Portland, Oregon for the first time. Amid this flurry of activity, it is worth reflecting on what remains 2015’s ultimate, most extensive exploration of the playwright’s work: the Sarah Kane season at Sheffield Theatres in Feburary and March. Programmed by Daniel Evans, who performed in the premières of Cleansed (1998) and 4.48 Psychosis (2000), the season 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’ (Evans).

The season bore homage to Evans’ 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, while 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 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 on the work.

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 theatre-maker 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. While 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 both in the responses of an elderly woman sitting next to me in the audience, and through the power of James Cotterill’s set design which strongly evoked the presence of the “paper-thin wall”. The stage was organised with an open area set as a hotel bedroom complete with double bed, armchairs and mini-bar, bound at the edge of the stage with perspex sheets. There were then two offstage areas within the set. The first was revealed as a hotel corridor when the door opened, the suggestion of other rooms constructed within it in a cul-de-sac of closed doors; and a second area – the bathroom – whose entrance was technically “off-stage” 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, and was visually congruent.

At the end of scene two, however, 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 C20th Irish drama. As the knocking played out in this production, I became aware of how hollow the set was. The echo of each knock accented the constructed nature of the stage flats drawing attention to an incongruity in the onstage architecture and its layout. For on closer looking it became apparent that the bathroom and the room off the corridor outside were occupying the same space. This incongruity concurs with Kane’s initial presentation and subsequent dismantling of the façade of Naturalism in the play, and as Cate retreats into the unseen bathroom, which doubles as ‘the room next door’ the set underscored the shift to Magical Realism effected by Kane as Cate disappears, as if down the plughole, thus escaping potential assault by the Soldier. 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 and gently pressed 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. The chain of response and gesture were inextricably linked with the action onstage and played back into our watching of the play – the power of the violence and Kane’s construction of this moment where the soldier enters and the wall is torn down, was moving the woman next to me to offer some gesture of connection – whether a cry for help or a touch of reassurance.

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 petits-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 subject matter of Blasted may have mirrored 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”. Employing a Kleinian reading of the relationship between toddler grief and manic-depressive states, I suggest that Tinker’s emphasis in the Independent article on his daughter’s “highly responsible social services job” and her “useful young life cut short”, set against his later condemnation of Sarah Kane as a “23-year-old writer” appearing to know:

no bounds of decency, yet with no message to convey by way of excuse […], creating her own lawless environment… allowing her three characters to behave with utmost bestiality to each other

illustrates a clear example of the “good mother / bad mother” split symptomatic with the regressive child-like states of early grief.

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 petits-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 added:

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. Because actress Jessica Barden is apparently not disabled, and because learning difficulties are complex and cannot be adequately conveyed by reduced signifiers, her attempts to “play” this resulted in a rather bizarre, jarring and unreal 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.

Shortly before the London premiere of Blasted and following its publication in Frontline Intelligence 2, Kane began work on Cleansed. It was a play with a long gestation, and she completed it in the Summer of 1997. Originally conceived as the second part of a trilogy on war (of which Blasted was the first), it extended Kane’s exploration of gender and the body scripting a Foucauldian dramatization of “the institution” and the potentially damaging effects of institutionalisation on the individuals within it. Violence, abuse and gender-terrorism are key themes of Cleansed as are ghosts and the disruptive nature of ghostings. The origin of atrocities are located within the play in the character of Tinker; the overseer of the institution – nominally a university but shifting in reference to also suggest a psychiatric ward, a concentration camp or a military base. That Jack Tinker is somehow indicated in the personification is probable, yet I would suggest this was not intended as a throwaway snipe by Kane at the critic. By the time Cleansed premiered in April 1998, Jack Tinker had been dead for two years and I suggest that the character stands for the ghost of the man and what he represented. In short, Tinker’s ghost haunts the spaces of the university in Cleansed to draw attention to the institutions and spheres within which Tinker the man operated, vis-à-vis the British theatre and media; and the violence, desire and chaos within these spheres is indicated and contested by Kane through this spectral signifying in the play. Whilst dramatizing the institution, Cleansed also focuses on the question of the individual – and in the case of Tinker, portrays a small man with big power, unquestioning of his role in the destruction of others, an “authoritarian personality” who continually negates responsibility and defers to some abstract and unseen higher authority.

Kane’s concern was not to present her male figures as “monsters” or “demi-gods”, rather to investigate and draw attention to the everyday failings of human beings caught in systems of power or environments which they choose not to challenge. Her portrayal of Tinker extended a theme of decaying and damaged masculinity already established through the character of Ian in Blasted, and explored later through the character of A in Crave. In the Sheffield productions, actors Martin Marquez (Ian) and Christopher Fulford (A) excelled at these roles; each bringing a strongly delineated, well-observed, naturalist playing of everyday men caught in their own weaknesses to the stage. Marquez and Fulford’s portrayals revealed the male protagonists not as great kings or lovers to the people around them, but as fools; dangerous, offensive, destructive, but also lost in many ways to themselves, condemned to an eternal loneliness and ridiculousness, and necessary to include in the world of the play. It is not an easy thing to do and the roles are painful ones to perform. The fooling quality of Ian and A is rarely drawn out in productions, and Marquez, Fulford, also Wilson and Gwinner are to be congratulated for the subtlety and power with which they handled these personifications. It indicated a new direction for the staging of these characters and was welcome.

At the time of writing Cleansed, Kane was also working on her screenplay Skin which was first shown at the London Film Festival in 1995, and later on Channel 4 in 1997. There is a similar exploration of damaged and fascist masculinity in the character of Billy, a young, white, National Front supporter, who has the violence of his belief systems turned back on him and enacted physically on his body, by a young, Black, bisexual woman Marcia, with whom he falls in love. The programming of Skin alongside a directed reading of Cleansed at the Sheffield season usefully drew attention to the parallels between these two works. It was good to see Skin programmed alongside the theatre plays. It may have been fruitful to have had an open discussion programmed in with this showing, as it was the end of the season and the audience was full of people who had attended the other productions and were developing a “literacy” in Kane’s work, keen to talk about it and ready with original, insights and opinions on the material. It was, however, a beautiful spring day, and many seemed happy to exit the theatre blinking to enjoy the fresh air and cherry blossom instead! Skin is rarely discussed, however, and I hope that other programmers will follow Sheffield’s lead in including this in future platforms.

Having missed the directed reading of Phaedra’s Love due to work commitments, I was disappointed that Daniel Evans was not present for the reading of Cleansed that day – he apparently was needed at a rehearsal for another play in London. His slot was filled by a colleague and a rehearsed reading pulled together in a couple of hours that morning with actors from Crave, and from the run of Arthur Miller’s Playing for Time showing alongside the Kane season. The “turn-around’”of plans was not altogether unexpected, as Cleansed is a play that repeatedly suffers from being side-lined, marginalised and avoided. It is also a play that brings chaos and disruption in its wake during rehearsal (and production if it is not given sufficient time for the actors to work with it), and directors often drop it. It is still the least performed of all Kane’s plays – something Simon Kane affirmed in the talk-back for Crave – and is apparently difficult to get the rights to perform.

Cleansed is a beautiful, transformative and challenging play. It is a difficult work to programme alongside the other plays – it is complex and demanding; it needs its own space, and also lots of time for its disruptive and transforming potentials to be realised. The emotional effect on actors playing the roles is absolute – it would be hard for a cast to move between this play and another. I have advocated elsewhere the value of showing Cleansed in process, and the benefits of keeping it at a dramaturgical and rehearsal stage for as long as possible. I have also questioned whether a middle-scale theatre venue is the right arena for it to be staged in; the mix of performance art, clowning and theatre methodologies at work within the script make it a piece that can work well in other sites. Nevertheless, it would be good to see it programmed by Sheffield Theatres as a stand-alone piece at a later stage.

The read-through was excellent. The main roles were taken by the Crave actors who had clearly developed a literacy for Kane’s work from their engagement with the run, and who found ways of making connections to the script – whether through a familiarity of the rhythms of the language (Rakie Ayola, playing Grace) or through similarities in the construction of character to their main role (Christopher Fulford, playing Tinker). I particularly liked Fulford’s characterisation of Tinker, which he acted on a continuum with A in tone and psychological rendering, but with a harder, more negating edge. I would love to see Fulford in this role for a longer run. Likewise Ayola’s Grace, which was similarly strong. She brought a powerful drive to the character and an independence, playing Grace’s “wants” with clarity.

In 1996, Kane was commissioned by the Gate Theatre to rewrite a classic, and chose Seneca’s Phaedra, reworking it as Phaedra’s Love. She won a Jerwood Foundation Young Playwright’s Award and undertook a residency at New Dramatists, New York, working alongside Elana Greenfield and writing the bulk of Phaedra’s Love there whilst also continuing with Cleansed. She directed a well-received adaptation of Büchner’s Woyzeck for the Gate in 1997. She was active in Germany and involved in exchanges between the Royal Court and the Baracke Theatre, Berlin (later the Schaubühne Theatre, Berlin). German directors, critics and audiences embraced Kane’s work, treating it with the consideration and intelligence it deserved. A lasting legacy of this exchange was Thomas Oestermeier’s decision to keep Kane’s plays permanently in the Schaubühne repertoire in the ten years between 2002 and 2012. From 1996 to 1998, Kane was Writer-in-Residence at Paines Plough Theatre, London working alongside Mark Ravenhill, the then-Literary Manager, and Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone. While there, she instituted a series of writing programmes called Wild Lunch where writers would come and do workshops with her. She was a popular teacher and nurtured many upcoming playwrights at this time. In his text Sarah Kane: An Appreciation, written six months after her death in 1999, Dan Rebellato commented that there were “many testimonies to her inspiring presence as a teacher of playwriting, in rehearsal, and as an actor and director”, and Featherstone concurred with this:

I think above everything else Sarah was a writer… incredibly literate in all aspects of theatre, and so her interest in other writers came out of that. She had an extraordinary ability to help other writers develop work. And even though she had a very strong voice in her own writing… she could make that secondary to what other people wanted to say. Her work on scripts came at an early stage of her career to try and earn money as a script-reader.

(Featherstone, in Saunders, Love Me or Kill Me, 2002)

Featherstone directed the première of Kane’s Crave in 1998 – a play she wrote using the pseudonym Marie Kelvedon to escape the vitriolic attentions of the London Press who treated Cleansed with the same infantile disdain in which they had reviewed Blasted. Kane was highly critical of the London media, noting the differences with the press in Germany whose journalists read every one of a writer’s plays before attending the theatre and who took the work far more seriously. She hit back at London critics saying:

There’s been a failure by the critical establishment to develop an adequate language with which to discuss drama. A list of contents is not a review, but that is almost, without fail, what new plays receive – a brief synopsis with a note at the end saying whether or not the story was pleasing to the reviewer.

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

She continued to write whilst working actively alongside other theatre-makers. In occupying positions as a Literary Manager (Bush Theatre, 1994) and Writer-in-Residence (Paines Plough, 1996- 1998), Kane was part of a growing movement of dramaturgy, new writing, literary management and devising projects in the late 1990s, that worked at an interface between commercial theatres and the community arts and education arenas. Mary Luckhurst recalls this emerging field as being one of ‘energy and political articulacy’. The far-reaching benefits of that era and the consolidation of its participatory ethos can be seen as coming to fruition in the ongoing career of Vicky Featherstone, whose previous post as the first Executive Director of the National Theatre of Scotland was hailed as

a great success, creating a model for a “theatre without walls” whose education and participatory work and productions for schools and family audiences have been as important as its flagship projects, including the worldwide hit Black Watch, or the verbatim play about the press, Enquirer, which is currently running in Glasgow.

(Lyn Gardner, ‘Vicky Featherstone can help the Royal Court keep its edge’, Guardian, 11th May 2011)

Described as a woman who “is not afraid to be a strong leader”, Featherstone became the first female Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre, at the age of 45 in April 2013 and brought Lucy Davies of the National Theatre of Wales in with her as Executive Director. Featherstone’s appointment marked a steady growth in the numbers of female directors occupying positions of artistic leadership in London theatres in the post-Millenium years, many of them women of Kane’s generation and younger; to name a few – Josie Rourke (Donmar Warehouse, Bush Theatre), Jenny Topper (Bush Theatre, Hampstead Theatre), Indhu Rubasingham (Tricycle Theatre), Lisa Goldman (The Red Room, Soho Theatre), Toni Racklin (The Barbican), Natalie Abrahami and Carrie Cracknell (The Gate), Thea Sharrock (Southwark Playhouse), and also Katie Mitchell who has enjoyed a long-running relationship with the Royal Court as an Associate.

Emerging in this milieu of strong female directors in the years following Kane’s death, was Charlotte Gwinner. Currently an Associate at Sheffield Theatres, Gwinner emerged in 2001 and subsequently became Artistic Director and Founder of ANGLE Theatre, directing plays at the Hackney Empire, and winning a Peter Brook Award. She has an impressive and extensive record, having directed for The Gate, Orange Tree, Paines Plough, Southwark Playhouse, the Royal Court and Citizens Theatre before working as Associate Director at the Bush (2009-2011) and most recently as Associate Director at Liverpool’s Everyman and Playhouse Theatre where she received the Quercus Award for Theatre Directors in 2013. Her direction of Kane’s Crave and 4.48 Psychosis was truly excellent.

A feature of both productions was the clarity of diction and excellent use of voice and breath used by all the actors. Gwinner had clearly paid attention to the language of Kane’s texts, and addressed its particular construction with clarity, precision and conscientious regard. I was pleasantly surprised by hearing words and phrases I had not noticed before, and others received fresh emphasis and import from the delivery. The pacing was excellent and demanded much from the cast in terms of energy and concentration – Rakie Ayola described in the talk-back session how she could only keep time with knowing when to come in on a line by counting certain sets of phrases on her fingers; the other actors testified to having to find similar strategies to cope with the complex sets of repetitions, rhymes and punctuation in Kane’s exacting and sophisticated text.

The performance of the language had a meditative quality – there was space around the words for the audience to ponder meaning or just to enjoy the sounds and rhythms of their utterance. The meditative quality was enhanced by understated but intense uses of light, which effected changes of mood and direction efficiently (thanks to lighting designer Hartley TA Kemp). The set for both pieces was equally subtle, minimalist and yet all pervasive, and consisted of blocks painted in dark-grey hard-wearing paint, textured with some kind of pebble-dash or wood chip which extended from the stage up to the walls and the balconies of the hexagonal tiers above the stage, a testament to the talents of designers Signe Beckman andEmma Bailey. This subtle extension of set design from the stage into the auditorium was a “leveller”, serving to dissolve the barrier between audience and players and creating intimacy and connection. The grey served to soften the light, and though in shadow, the audience sat bathed in a quiet glow throughout. There was something warm and seductive, but open and easy about the design of the set and lighting which was similar for both plays. The light was sharper for 4.48 Psychosis however and the constantly re-emerging tick of a clock served to underline the feeling that one were in an institution. Christopher Shutt’s sound proved disquieting at times – it had a scuttling, insect-like quality and I felt a constant presence of the line “as I scuttled like a beetle along the backs of their chair” throughout.

Watching Crave one had the feel that one was at a chamber concert rather than a theatre play, and indeed the advice of actress Rakie Ayola was that audiences would best understand the work if they listened to it as music rather than trying to construct meaning from its dialogue or characterisation. Whilst this was undoubtedly true, the close attention to language in this production actually brought certain storylines, characterisation and relationships into a stronger focus than I have previously seen. The actors worked in a tight ensemble – remarkable given that they only had two and a half week’s rehearsal time. Each actor maintained a strong sense of role and two storylines emerged focusing around persistence and denial. On the one han,d there was M (Rakie Ayola) whose motivation seemed to be centred on becoming a mother and persuading B (Tom Mothersdale) to give her a baby. B resists and refuses this persuasion – something that drives M to a point of ruthlessness – as Ayola said in the talk-back, she had an image for the role of a Black Widow Spider – she just wanted his sperm and would probably kill him once she had it! There was no love between them, but the drive to acquire the baby was all-consuming. A similar pattern of a want that exceeds all boundaries and is vigorously rejected was in A (Christopher Fulford’s) abusive, cringing and distressing love for an underage girl C (Pearl Chanda). In a powerful moment, Fulford stepped into a strong box of light, and in soft-spoken, desperate tones begins to plead for reciprocation and relief from his unstoppable, paedophiliac desire for her, a monologue that is finally rebuffed by C’s raging repetition of “This has to stop, this has to stop!” – a rage and resistance that Chanda maintained for the duration of the piece with admirable energy. This section of the production was some of the best theatre I have seen, and all members of the cast are to be commended for their superb energy and commitment to the challenge of this work.

Three of the actors from Crave – Ayola, Chanda and Mothersdale – formed the ensemble for 4.48 Psychosis and the pacing, attention to diction and energy was again notable. The mood of this piece was quite distinct however, with each actor developing a strong dramatisation for two characters each – one a patient and one a psychiatrist or counsellor – playing out the lines between them whilst occupying the diagonals of a raised square area whilst moving in contsnat flux between pairings and threes. Mothersdale was particularly strong in this piece with a resistant energy and questioning throughout, and a strong direct line in looking directly at audience members. Ayola’s delivery was unusual in this piece. She seemed to be heightening the language to a form of classicism and this was interesting in that it served to distance her slightly – almost as if she were in dissociation from the environment. As a reading of both patient and doctor within an asylum it was a powerful strategy, and one that suggested a resistance. It also served to emphasise the intense classicism of Kane’s language, and force attention onto its constructed nature – something that was welcome as too often the play is performed as if the cast and audience are stepping inside Sarah Kane’s head and hearing a suicide note.

While Kane completed the first draft in a psychiatric ward some days before her death, she was actively researching the theme of psychosis using a range of literary and medical texts. This is a subtle distinction. Nevertheless the sudden, throwaway, nature of her delivery of the final line came as a shock – it was almost too blasé, and yet in its anti-climax, the true horror of death and Kane’s suicide became palpable. Ayola delivered the line as if blowing out a candle – one quick burst of breath and the light was gone – something that chillingly underlined the idea of life as a walking shadow. I had an instinct following the production that Ayola should direct her own version of the piece.

The 2015 commemorations of Sarah Kane have only reinforced her status as one of the most transformative, invigorating playwrights in world theatre. From Portland to Sheffield, there are fresh interpretations and readings to be drawn, and her star remains in the ascendant.

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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