Sarah Kane has become something of a legend in contemporary British drama. Her first play, BLASTED Royal Court, 1995), was greeted with howls of derision from critics and shock and digust from many audience members. The legend was aided by her suicide at the age of twenty-nine after the composition of a play, 4:48 PSYCHOSIS, that is a kind of public suicide note. By the time of her death, there had been a critical reappraisal of her work and Kane was considered a major talent.
I must say that my own initial reaction to her work after seeing the premiere of PHAEDRA'S LOVE was that she had an adolescent desire to shock, but little else. Lots of simulated masturbation and blow jobs, but at the time I didn't see the point. I was won over to some extent by 4:48 PSYCHOSIS, a haunting, poetic work as carefully composed as a piece of serious music. I had read BLASTED but never seen it until the current revival, directed by Sean Holmes, at the Lyric Hammersmith. Since visual imagery is as important to much of Kane's work as verbal imagery, seeing her work in the theater is necessary to make a real assessment. Yes, this is true of all plays, but, since many crucial moments in BLASTED are silent, it must be seen.
The setting is at first realistic. We're in a nondescript hotel room in Leeds occupied by a middle-aged man with a gun in a shoulder holster. Is he a gangster or a policeman? At first he seems to be a journalist, but why then is he carrying a gun in relatively gunless England? We later find out he is an assasin for a government intelligence agency. The man is visited by a young woman with whom he has had a sexual relationsip. She has strange fits. At first the play echoes the work of Harold Pinter. There's a sense of menace under the dialogue and a Pinter-esque conflict between a macho man and a somewhat mysterious woman. The man seems scared of something outside the door.
In the second scene, the play becomes more violent, less rational, but the violence is at first limited to sexual violence between the two characters. The woman disappears and a soldier comes in. An explosion occurs and we are in the wreckage of the hotel. Only the bed is left. With war comes an apocalyptic sense of the end of civilization. We're in a horrifying combination of KING LEAR and a horror film. The soldier rapes the man and bites out his eyes. Later, the starving man eats part of the corpse of a baby before climbing into the baby's grave while waiting to die.
Much has been written about the shocking moments in BLASTED, but they are no more shocking than KING LEAR or TITUS ANDRONICUS which certainly were in the back of Sarah Kane's mind when she wrote this. In 1995, the great fear of violence in England was from the IRA. I kept thinking of how more timely the play is now in our age of terrorism and seemingly endless wars. The odd beauty of BLASTED comes from the moments when violence and tenderness become strangely linked. The soldier rapes the man, but there's affection mixed with the brutality. The man sexually exploits the young woman, but also loves her. When the social order dissolves, all sorts of borders blur. The man longs for death but also will perform desperate acts to stay alive. The young woman wants to love, but there's no one left to receive her affection. At the end she seems the only person left.
Kane had a real gift for theatrical poetry. She didn't have much of a sense of humor -- I thought about how her contemporary Martin McDonagh can make this kind of anarchic horror funny. Her models -- the works of Pinter, KING LEAR and TITUS ANDRONICUS -- have moments of humor to make the horror more palatable. Kane is relentless. Slowly, inexorably she leads us from a potentially violent scene into a nightmare. The last five minutes are a series of non-verbal snapshots of a man losing his sanity, his humanity and, finally his life.
I can't imagine a better production of BLASTED than this one. Sean Holmes has paced the play to lead the audience slowly, inexorably into the nightmare. Danny Webb gives a virtuoso performance as the man, first a racist thug with glimmer of human feeling, then a passive victim, then something not quite human. Young Lydia Wilson almost matches him. Even in the relatively sane first scene, she convincingly alternates power and passivity; normalty, hysteria and cataonia. Aidan Kelly towers over the other actors and manages to be both terrifying and oddly tender.
I remember a friend screaming after a Sarah Kane production: "Get me out of that person's head!!" One has to surrender to her vision. There is no doubt, that she had a great talent. To put it mildly, this is not the work of a happy camper, but I'm glad I experienced it.
BLASTED by Sarah Kane. Directed by Sean Holmes. Lyric Hammersmith Theatre. November 10, 2010.