Michelle Terry and Graham Butler as Grace and Graham in Cleansed. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.
When Cleansed opened in the Dorfman Theatre on 16 February, it became the first piece by Sarah Kane to be performed at the National. This, perhaps, tells us a great deal about the journey that her work has undertaken. Dismissed at first as a shock artist by most critics, she has become a hugely important cultural figure, a master of the ‘in-yer-face’ style that transformed British theatre in the 1990s.
During her too-short career, Kane wrote five plays, alongside a handful of articles and other projects. Here, we take a look at each of them.
Kane started writing her first play while still a student in Birmingham. When it was first performed, in 1995 at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, its unrelenting on-stage violence caused something of an uproar. Jack Tinker, writing in the Daily Mail, called it a ‘disgusting feast of filth’ – a view shared, perhaps in softer terms, by many critics.
The play begins in a hotel room with a young woman named Cate, and Ian, a homophobic, sexist, racist journalist, who begins by trying to seduce her. Its natural beginnings give way to something darker, as the hotel room becomes a Bosnian war scene, and acts of abuse, rape, cannibalism take place.
Blasted forces the viewer to confront the idea that wartime atrocities can take place in times of peace. Despite the initial critical reluctance, its merit was recognised by the likes of Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill, who called it ‘rather a tender play’. The critics later followed; Guardian’s Michael Billington was one of many who changed their minds:
Five years ago I was rudely dismissive of Sarah Kane’s Blasted. Yet watching its revival last night I was overcome by its sombre power.
2. Phaedra’s Love
Phaedra: I wanted to see your face when you came.
Phaedra: I’d like to see you lose yourself.
Hippolytus: It’s not a pleasant sight.
Phaedra: Why, what do you look like?
Hippolytus: Every other stupid fucker.
Kane’s second play takes Roman tragedian Seneca’s play Phaedra and reimagines it in a modern setting. Like the original, it tells the story of Phaedra’s love for her stepson, Hippolytus, but makes him the central character, a cruel, emotional manipulator who drives her to suicide.
As with much of Kane’s work, the play shows scenes of extreme violence on stage, unlike in classical drama, where action takes place off stage. It ends with many of its characters either abused or dead – nevertheless, Kane described it as ‘my comedy’.
Three years after the opening of Blasted, Cleansed had its first performance at the Royal Court Theatre Downstairs. Like Phaedra’s Love, it deals with themes of love and pain – both emotional and physical.
The play takes place in an abandoned university building-turned-torture chamber, where the sadistic Tinker forces all kinds of torment on his victims. It is a violent and unflinching piece, known for the difficulty of bringing to life stage directions that include ‘the rats carry Carl’s feet away.’
The current production in the Dorfman is Cleansed’s first major revival on a London stage since its premiere. Michelle Terry, who plays Grace, will be taking the mantle directly from the playwright: in the 1998 run, due to an injury to the original actress, Kane herself played the part at its last three performances.
Though similar in theme to her earlier work, Kane’s fourth play saw a marked stylistic departure. Not only was there no on-stage violence, she also eschewed any stage directions, in particular contrast with Cleansed. The cast consists of four characters, of unspecified gender, known only as A, B, C and M.
Kane distanced Crave from her earlier work by releasing it under a pseudonym, Marie Kelvedon, made up of her middle name and her home town. She went so far as to create a biography for the fictional playwright:
Marie Kelvedon is twenty-five. She grew up in Germany in British Forces accommodation and returned to Britain at sixteen to complete her schooling. She was sent down from St Hilda’s College, Oxford, after her first term, for an act of unspeakable Dadaism in the college dining hall. She has had her short stories published in various European literary magazines and has a volume of poems Onzuiver (‘Impure’) published in Belgium and Holland. Her Edinburgh Fringe Festival debut was in 1996, a spontaneous happening through a serving hatch to an audience of one. Since leaving Holloway she has worked as a mini-cab driver, a roadie with the Manic Street Preachers and as a continuity announcer for BBC Radio World Service. She now lives in Cambridgeshire with her cat, Grotowski.
5. 4.48 Psychosis
Kane’s final play was finished shortly before her death in 2000, written while Kane was suffering from severe depression. It is the least traditional of all her work, written in a fragmented style with little plot or character and no specified number of actors. Kane’s friend, the playwright David Greig, claims that the numbers in the title refer to 4.48am, when she frequently woke in the morning.
Psychosis is the final, remarkable play of a remarkable career by a remarkable playwright. Kane’s work is now performed internationally, and she is rightly recognised as one of the most important British playwrights of the 1990s, if not the 20th century.