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October 1, 2007 | by  | in Theatre |
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Know this or die unfulfilled (in theatrical terms). This Week: Sarah Kane

“To create something beautiful about despair or out of a feeling of despair, is for me the most hopeful, life affirming thing a person can do” (Sarah Kane).

In London, on the January 18 1995, in the intensified small space of the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, 65 people witnessed what some term the “rebirth of British theatre.” It was the premiere of Sarah Kane’s first play Blasted. Like its title, Kane’s play demonstrated a stylistic rupture into the low-key naturalism which had dominated mid 90s British theatre.

Ian – a racist, swearing journalist – and a much younger girl, Cate, enter a fancy hotel room in Leeds. Ian attempts to seduce Cate, and then later rapes her. Halfway through, a soldier enters the hotel and a bomb blast blows apart the hotel room. Without shifting location, we seem to be in the middle of war torn Srebrenica.

Kane arrived a time when British theatre was ready to be taken by the scruff of its neck and moved away from the theatre of the 80s and the 90s, where the ‘classic issue play’ dominated. These plays had clear political agendas and often weighed up the pros and cons of an issue, rounding off with a large ‘state-of-the-nation’ speech at the end (eg David Hare). Kane argued that this brand of social realism makes no demand on its spectators and so wrote her own brand of theatre which some term ‘experiential’ – she wants the audience to feel the extreme discomfort and distress of the characters.

Blasted provoked a huge outcry. The media were outraged that the play featured a soldier eating Ian’s eyes, Ian eating a baby and Ian being anally raped. The critics chose to focus on the violence because they couldn’t handle the extreme stylistic shift in her work. Michael Billington of The Guardian criticised her work for having “no sense of external reality” and for not delineating “who exactly is meant to be fighting whom out on the streets.” They argued it was confused and illogical.

However, that’s exactly the point: war is confused and illogical and there is no point presenting it otherwise. Critics couldn’t understand the shift from a Leeds hotel room to Bosnia. They couldn’t understand that precisely because they couldn’t make the link that what was happening in Central Europe could just as easily happen in the UK. By literally blending the worlds of the UK and Bosnia, by collapsing time and space, the audience is forced to make the connection that a rape in a hotel room is the seed for wider violent conflict. Some call this a metaphor. I would argue it’s hyper-real; it’s too real. It’s the real we don’t want to see.

Cleansed (1998) is my favourite play of Kane’s. A group of five characters are abused in a university doubling as a torture chamber or concentration camp. The cruel Tinker is a torturer (comically named after Daily Mail drama critic Jack Tinker who called Blasted a “disgusting piece of filth”). With ludicrously complicated stage directions such as “a sunflower pushes through the floor and grows above their heads” and “the rat begins to eat Carl’s hand”, this gives scope to the director and actors to interpret the script how they wish. In Crave (1998), we see her work becoming increasingly fragmented.

The text is lines of dialogue written for four characters A, B, C and M, with no stage directions. This continues her tradition of leaving staging open to interpretation by the production. In her last play 4.48 Psychosis (written in 1999, staged in 2000) the text is incredibly fragmented. It is unclear how many characters are supposed to perform the work, and there is no distinguishable plot or character.

Is she still writing today? No, Sarah Kane killed herself in 1999. Now, it’s apparently impossible to read her last play (4.48 Psychosis) as anything other than an extended suicide note. Throughout her brief career, Kane’s plays dealt with intimate personal perspectives and a wider political reality. Not content to receive inherited dramatic form, each new play of Kane’s found a new structure to articulate her ideas.

However, the depth of her writing was continually overshadowed by the critical reaction to the violence in her plays. Credited with having revived experimentation in theatre again and paving the way for playwrights such as Mark Ravenhill and Martin Crimp, her work is still performed heavily in Europe, where they adore her. Unlike so many, she believed that “if theatre can change lives, then it can change society.”

Sarah Kane 1971 – 1999
Blasted (1995)
Phaedra’s Love (1996)
Cleansed (1998)
Crave (1998)
4.48 Psychosis (2000)

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About the Author ()

Well hello there. Eleanor was the Theatre Editor in 2007, now she writes the Women's Column and just generally minces about the Salient office. Eleanor is currently an Honours student in Theatre (with a touch of gender). She also has a BCA in Marketing but she tries to keep that on the d-low (embarrassing, because she loves academic integrity and also perpetuating the myth that she's a tad bohemian). If you've got a gender agenda, woo her by taking her a BYO Malaysian. She lies, if you show any interest at all she'll probably tackle you in the street and force you to write a column.

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