'Blasted’ Sarah Kane’s first play ‘about love and violence and rape and war’ very much suits the raw, concreted naked space at Styx. First performed in 1995 at the Royal Court Theatre, the piece should in theory, still have a strong contemporary resonance over 20 years later. Sadly we are still living in a world where certain countries are living in fear, in an environment rife with the violence of war. We are still living in a world where politics and religion are often used as an ‘excuse’ for the chaos, rather than devices that might help society reach for a hopeful future. Unfortunately, as I have so often found with Kane’s work, and in direct contrast to many who hail her work as deeply poignant and poetic, I cannot help but feel any message hoping to be presented is obscured by the cliched acts used to ‘shock’ an audience. Sexual and alcohol abuse, and a torrent of racist slurs and taboo swear words; all three at the centre of the piece. Offensive? Yes, so obviously in one respect, the material works a treat on me…except that the relentlessness becomes boring and results in a complete indifference to the characters and message, were I to somehow find it.
This production, directed by Alasdair Pidsley, is another revival wrestling with presenting the moral compass with clarity. Having seen Sean Holmes’ 2010 Lyric Hammersmith production, my feeling after this evening’s performance, is that the problems stem both from the playtext, and the director. Whilst moving away from the conventions of naturalism, any director is starting from a point of chaos, not a bad thing; but one is immediately faced with a decision on whether the message or the shock factor should take centre stage. This time round I initially found it refreshing that Pidsley realised the dialogue itself is evocative enough to allow the audience to conjure its horrifying imagery for themselves, most grateful for the vote of confidence. Beginning with the exploration of the relationship between Ian (Nigel Barrett) and Cate (Verity Kirk), we were given some space to understand what drives the characters, their history and what has brought them to this moment in an expensive hotel room in Leeds. The majority of the sexual context between the two characters was either spoken or suggested in projected dialogue on a wall, alongside the majority of the play’s stage directions. The actors therefore had room to concentrate on their subtext and conveying the relationship between them. The establishment of Ian and Cate’s background worked well; Pidsley’s minimalist approach, alongside Grace Smart’s stripped back, instructive set served to locate the action in a less naturalistic manner, which was effective and enhanced a need for some simplicity in a world of such chaos.
The design concept supported the directorial structure of the piece throughout, as previously mentioned, beginning with a sparsely dressed space with each item or area labelled with one word descriptions. ‘Window’, ‘Toilet’, ‘Bed’ etc, accompanied by the projected stage directions, gradually crumbling to the post-explosion wreck by the close of the play. The main scene change of the piece occurred in a strobe which for me, meaning I had to close my eyes, however the impact on opening my eyes again once the strobe died left, for me, the most striking impression of the evening. The transformation which had taken place in those moments was extremely dramatic, and the stage looked disastrously beautiful, strewn with rubble, flowers and decay. In retrospect, I wonder if that impact would have been as great had I watched the actors transforming the stage.
It was from the soldier’s entrance where things began to become somewhat confused. Kane’s abstract imagery contains more than enough conflicting ideas, so I wondered why the suggestive style which dominated the first part suddenly became literal and gratuitous during the interactions between Ian and the soldier. The decision seemed to have no real justification. One might have assumed that leaving the abuse of Cate to the imagination was out of respect for the female audience members who Pidsley could have expected to be in the majority young, however if this is the case, no respect is shown in return to balance the humiliation and suffering Ian goes through at the hands of the soldier. If we are leaning towards a ‘feminist’ approach here, it is not obvious enough, and the result was a rather confusing presentation of various violent acts which felt neither shocking or tragic. When Cate returned, we understood that her contempt for Ian was not as strong as her principles, and in the closing moments there was perhaps a small glimmer of morality in the contrast between her dialogue and her actions. It is a pity it took so long to reach some level of clarity which, had it been present throughout, might have added some helpful light and shade, which I've always found is the issue with Kane’s plays. She wrote with such a ferocious passion that it is clear she had a message to convey; the darkness of the world is obviously inherent to her writing, but sometimes being bludgeoned over the head with trauma is simply not as effective as ensuring your characters have a pulse and are relatable.
The cast of “Blasted” should be commended for their complete emotional commitment. In particular Nima Taleghani, as the soldier who comes is introduced halfway through the play, who gave the most three dimensional characterisation of the three. Ultimately though, the inconsistency of style hindered the meaning of the already high complex psychological piece, and despite the relentless imagery being presented, I couldn't help but feel the point this production might have had in our current climate, was missed.
The 90s Season also includes “Normal” and “The Skriker”, both plays with huge dramatic potential. I am looking forward to seeing how Emma Baggott and Gruff Theatre respectively tackle their productions.
“Blasted” is running at Styx until Saturday 11th March.