‘Riveting, real and unreal, like a nightmare’: Alison Croggon on Anne-Louise Sarks’ crystalline production of Sarah Kane’s Blasted
CW: Discussion of trauma and violence, especially sexual violence.
2018. I had to wait until 2018 to see Sarah Kane’s Blasted on stage.
Coming out of Anne-Louise Sarks’ first class production at the Malthouse, I felt like I was in a strange time warp. This should have happened 20 years ago. Why did it take so long? Why is this the first main stage production of any of Kane’s work in Melbourne? After all, throughout the 1990s Kane was the most exciting British playwright of her generation: a young, astonishingly talented and brave writer who drew from a radical strain in British playwriting – Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, Howard Barker – and transformed their influences into work that was uniquely her own.
Blasted was Kane’s first play. Written when she was 25, its premiere caused a scandal: critics lined up to condemn it, led by the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker, who notoriously labelled it “a disgusting feast of filth”. It launched a brief, meteoric career that saw four more plays and one short screenplay, each work taking her extraordinary theatricality further, winding her language tighter. And then, after 4:48 Psychosis, perhaps the most brilliant play of all, she killed herself.
I still remember how the hair stood up on the back of my neck when I first read Blasted and it dawned on me what Kane was doing. It’s almost naïve in how it simply lays out what is obvious, the truth that everybody knows but nobody will admit. I felt, in all its ugliness and trauma, in all its complexity, that it was first time a playwright had so baldly stated the truth about the experience of women.
Perhaps the primary influence on Blasted is Edward Bond’s 1965 Saved, a play about the brutalisation of poverty in 1960s England which featured the murder of a baby. It caused an equivalent scandal, and its banning and subsequent performance, which led to the prosecution of those involved, was a major factor in the abolition of theatre censorship in 1968.
Blasted opens out Bond’s examination of the wounds of class to a consideration of sexual violence (it comes with a raft of warnings that must be noted: this is an indisputably traumatic play). And it shows Kane’s formidable grasp of theatrical metaphor was there from the start. It was written in the aftermath of the Balkans War in the early 1990s, notably in the shadow of the rape camps, in which Serbian forces imprisoned Bosniak Muslim women and girls and subjected them to unspeakable sexual violence as a tactic of war.
As Blasted was re-evaluated after Kane’s death, it was striking how many (male) critics, many of them making their mea culpas for getting it wrong, remained incredulous about the central argument of Blasted. Michael Billington, for instance, initially attacked it savagely as gratuitous horror with “no sense of external reality”. In 2001, he revised his view: it was a much better play than he had thought, and (in a familiar move of gaslighting) that her bleak vision now made sense in the light of her depression and suicide. He added, demonstrating once again how intimate violence is routinely trivialised: “Even now I think she overstates her case.”
In Blasted, Kane literalises the link between war and domestic violence. However, her lens isn’t limited to gender: the brutalisation of misogyny is linked to other kinds of violence – racism, ableism, even the eating of animals. Dehumanisation, Kane says, begins at home: and the first person it dehumanises is its perpetrator. It still feels like one of the most perceptive analyses of human violence written for the stage.
Blasted opens with a banal scene of seduction. Middle-aged tabloid journalist Ian (David Woods) brings a young woman, Cate (Eloise Mignon), to an expensive hotel room in 1990s Leeds. They have had a prior relationship, but Cate, who suffers fits, has no intention of having sex: she is there, she says, because she feels sorry for him.
Ian has all the swagger and fragility of a toxic white man: he’s obnoxiously racist and sexist, mocks Cate’s disabled brother and her stammer, and, in between telling her that he loves her, constantly abuses her as “stupid”. He is a smoker who is dying of lung cancer, an alcoholic who drinks gin before breakfast. He is also paranoid: he wears a gun in a shoulder holster, which he draws every time someone knocks on the hotel room door.
When Cate refuses his advances, he lambasts her. She is deliberately causing him pain by arousing his sexual desire and then refusing to have sex. He forces her to masturbate him. When she blacks out, he rapes her inert body. He then insists that they sleep together and, despite her pleas, rapes her again, so forcefully that the following morning she is bleeding and in pain. He locks the door, insisting that she stay, that it’s too dangerous for her to leave, that he loves her. Cate goes off stage to bathe, and escapes through the window.
The rest of the play – in which Leeds is suddenly the site of a vicious civil war – is effectively an excavation of the subtext of the opening encounter. When a soldier (Fayssal Bazzi) enters the hotel room and brutalises Ian, it rhymes his rape of Cate: the soldier, like Ian, is both brutaliser and brutalised. The violence of civil war is no different to what happens to the bodies of women in kitchens and bedrooms and lounge rooms all over the suburbs. When Ian eats a dead baby, it’s a literalisation of his job, feeding on murder victims to make his salary.
And the final image of Ian, blind, dying, being fed through the compassion of Cate, leads us back to where we began, to the banal encounter in the hotel room. Only it’s the psychic truth of that encounter, stripped of its anodyne dress. Ian was already dying. He already couldn’t see. He was already brutalised. Cate was there because she was worried about him. The only difference is that at the end, in the play’s single moment of grace, he thanks her.
It’s hard to think of a better director for this text than Sarks. She meets its challenges with an admirable lucidity and attention to emotional detail, attaining Kane’s icy balance between literalism and metaphor. The opening scene is played subtly, refusing to pump up a sensationalist sense of peril which would let the audience off the hook: its very banality, its awkwardness, even a kind of benignity, make it deeply uncomfortable. Once the crystal turns and the covert violence becomes overt, the production generates the strange dislocation of emotional trauma: it’s riveting, real and unreal, like a nightmare.
Marg Horwell’s set, lit by the inimitable Paul Jackson, begins as an essay in beige, a naturalistic 1990s hotel room, which then explodes into a glimpse of a city destroyed by war. Jethro Woodward’s sound is also subtle, working always to heighten the rhythm of the dramaturgy, but never intrusive. The only gratuitous element is a video above the stage, slow motion close-ups of flowers or hands: a puzzling aesthetication that adds nothing to the production. Most of the time I barely noticed it, because I was so engrossed by what was happening on stage.
Every performance is courageous, opening up spaces of almost baffling tenderness or vulnerability inside the unrelenting cruelty. David Woods gives us a bravura performance, as exposing and unforgiving as the text. He is on stage for the whole play and, with Bazzi’s Soldier, personifies the complexities of what we now call toxic masculinity. Both these men are tragic, cruel, deeply afraid, broken by the ugliness of trauma. The Soldier’s appearance is relatively brief, and therefore the most easy to bowdlerise, and Bazzi avoids any sense of this. Mignon’s Cate, the most vulnerable character and yet, because of that very vulnerability, the most adept at survival, is given us without sentimentality or patronisation.
I don’t think this play is remotely cathartic: in a strange way, and I don’t mean this in any negative sense, its iteration of atrocity acts as a kind of reportage. In 2018, it shows us a reality that’s all too familiar but which still, for all its obviousness, is vehemently denied at almost every level of discourse. This reality wasn’t any less familiar in the 1990s, when the news was saturated with reports of the Balkan War. But maybe, just maybe, we’re a step closer to recognising the shapes of the denials that hide it.
CODA: A note from Jana Perkovic (who wrote an excellent consideration of Blasted for The Conversation)
The chronology of Blasted is really important. It wasn’t written after the war in ex-Yugoslavia, it was very much written during it. Blasted premiered in January 1995, and the massacre at the end of the siege of Srebrenica happened in July 1995. Given the normal timelines for developing a play, most of Blasted would have been written in 1993-4, which was before any notion of sexual violence as part of the war in Bosnia was reported in the media. Those stories came out later (not necessarily for us [in Croatia], but in the UK).
So, for example, Kusturica’s Underground came out in April 1995, Biljana Srbljanovic’s Porodične priče in 1997. This is important mainly to highlight just how far ahead of her time Kane was with Blasted. The connection she perceived between various kinds of violence was just not visible at the time, the way it is now.
The war in Bosnia (and partially Croatia) ended with the Dayton Agreement in December 1995, but the conflict in Kosovo started in 1998 and the NATO bombing of Serbia happened in March 1999.
Blasted by Sarah Kane, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks. Sets and costumes by Marg Horwell, lighting by Paul Jackson, sound design and composition by Jethro Woodward, cinematography by Sky Davies. Performed by Fayssal Bazzi, Eloise Mignon and David Woods. Malthouse Theatre until September 16. Bookings
18+.Contains extreme violence, sexual violence, coarse language, nudity, smoke and haze, loud and dynamic sound effects, herbal cigarettes and content some audiences may find confronting. To discuss potentially triggering content please contact Malthouse Theatre’s Box Office or speak with a member of staff.
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AUSLAN INTERPRETATION: Saturday September 15, 3pm