Blasted by Sarah Kane
All photography copyright Simon Kane.
In a hotel room in Leeds, racist, filthy, violent, alcoholic journalist Ian encounters his ex-girlfriend, naive, vulnerable, caring and fragile Cate. We watch them attack each other emotionally, physically, psychologically and sexually, until, a day later, a solider marches into the room. He’s angry, vulgar and even more violent. A civil war is breaking outside. The violence adapts, changes shape, becomes more and more shocking as the world around Ian and Cate crumbles to literally reveal the skeleton of the original hotel they were in, torn by war and destruction. We experience pain three-fold, each character a new layer of violence.
The tension that holds Kane’s Blasted together is the constant parallel between sexual and political violence, and the turbulent territory occupied by each in the same social space. The structure is progressively dark and highly nuanced, as each of the five acts holds a distinct literary character. Kane blends political identity with social dystopia, slides in some dark humour along the way and ends with an optimistic note. Despite the flavour and dynamics of the play holding strongly to abstraction, this isn’t a Guernica of the stage, instead it’s a young, angry attack on social structures and human behaviour. In light of that, Sean Holmes’ restaging of Kane’s classic, despite its reverence to the original text, holds the play back.
If Kane’s play aims to re-sensitize audiences to violence, it fails under Holmes’ direction. The shock factor isn’t sustained by the power of the play’s politics; we are far too removed from the characters, and remain observers in a game of endurance. Kane’s play is too angry to warrant such a literal adaptation, for without any social references embedded in the visual narrative of the play, we remain observers of an essay on the politics of violence rather the social realities of war.
In a technical sense, the play is faultless; every gesture maintains its dramaturgical space onstage, each relationship takes time to build right in front of us, and every act of violence stays true to its theatrical possibilities. Yet this warrants an important questioning of the role of violence in theatre. Even after fifteen years, the play still divides critics and shocks audiences. On the evening I saw the show, there were at least five walk-outs, and some younger members of the audience were crying throughout the performance. Yet I doubt they left with a deeper physical and emotional understanding of violence in our society, and the motivations that drive it. Kane’s play thrives in the balance between the possibilities of such a dystopia and the realities it hinges on, and without a strong visual and narrative imagination to bring out the meat of the text, it remains a horror story rather than social critique.