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AUTHOR: Sarah Kane
VENUE: St James Cavalier
DATES: 31 October, 1,2, 7, 8, 9 November 08
DIRECTOR: Dave Barton
CAST: Bryan Jennings, Andrew Galea, Jo Caruana
SUMMARY: Hailed by critics as a masterpiece and vilified by the Daily Mail as a ‘disgusting piece of filth’, Blasted is Sarah Kane’s first play. A night in a luxury hotel in Leeds for Cate and Ian gets transformed into hell with an attempted rape and the entrance of a soldier.
What the papers said:
CATACLYSMS IN LEEDS
I sometimes think that Unifaun Theatre Productions tend to create too much hype about a play before it actually happens. Equus, Some Explicit Polaroids, Paul and Mercury Fur were great hits and much appreciated. They did not need to be sold beforehand. Unifaun has enough of a following to ensure that its plays will be attended, followed and appreciated. All of them had uncomfortable moments; all four were extremely moving in content and all were in their own way controversial. Equus because of the psychological breakdown of order into pagan chaos, Polaroids because of its utter negativity, Paul because of its depiction of the apostle as a phantasist with obvious conclusions and Mercury Fur because of its tremendous violence which was however redeemed by the indestructibility of love. Blasted was a different kettle of fish entirely. Sarah Kane’s play relies far more on stage direction than on beauty and effectiveness of language. It is rather like a TV production in very slow motion; a Bill Viola installation comes to mind; one that never seems to be able to resolve. The story is relatively simple. A journalist who is also some sort of undercover agent takes refuge in a hotel room in Leeds out of all places along with his sometime lover who is not quite right in the head and is an epileptic. Their long vigil together takes up half the play and is punctuated by rapes, hand-jobs and culminates in a blow-job in which ends up badly with blood spurting from the nether regions. There is a wonderfully wrought explosion and enter a Serbian soldier who rapes the journalist and then kills himself. The world outside is chaos and the journalist dies a long slow agonizing death. Before he dies the lover reappears with a dying baby like the angel of death and the play comes to long drawn out and grisly end.
The question here is trying to fathom what Kane was trying to convey. Setting the same vicious atrocities that were taking place in Serbia at the time in Leeds makes the whole issue utterly bizarre. What happens in a civilized country like Britain if the bloodthirsty renegade soldiers inspired by the misplaced nationalism of Milosevic were unleashed on a totally unprepared United Kingdom? We can only imagine. Here we have an allegorical and very economical microcosm of the horrors of it all enacted in one single hotel room in which the whole gamut of torture, both mental and physical takes place in two short hours of violence. What I imagine the late Sarah Kane was trying to do was to shake us out of our complacency; our hardened detachment as day after day we slouch on our sofas munching something unhealthy and watching newsreel after newsreel of war, famine and destruction without losing our composure at all…..or our appetite! So oblivious are we to the sufferings of others that only a few days ago the starving children of Congo, victims of tribal violence with Tutsis and Hutus, being whipped by armed guards elicited no more than an ‘Oh No! Not again?’ sort of reaction. In other words it’s all very well when these things happen to ‘other people’. What Sarah Kane tried to drive home is that Blasted is like the story of the Tsunami. It can happen to us too. Try to remember the CNN coverage of that terrific disaster. Who were the victims? Holidaymakers like you and I. What about the Indonesians and Sri Lankan who lost their lives? Answer that question yourselves.
The trio of actors acquitted themselves superbly. I am full of admiration for Jo Caruana who acted the role of Cate with such quiet eloquence and dramatic expression. Those long stares, the pouts, the fits, the peals of maniacal laughter were superbly orchestrated to send a chill of horror down our spines. Bryan Jennings’s Ian is a pivotal role; he is present on stage throughout, first as an aggressor with a conscience of sorts who at first baulks at taking advantage of a chit of girl with such obvious disabilities and who ironically ends up by being the victim of extreme violence that in sleepy Leeds. The juxtaposition was utterly unimaginable. Ian is not a sympathetic character. He is a typical selfish bastard on the way out helping his lung cancer along to a speedy end and grabbing what he can in the process. The war foiled his plans for a sex, drugs and rock and roll photo-finish. To end up not only being raped by a totally depraved soldier, the ultimate insult for a macho hetero male, but having one’s eyes sucked out too and that after having one’s penis bitten by a half-crazed girl, was revolting enough. Slowly dying of starvation in the ruins of the ‘expensive’ hotel room after trying to gnaw part of as dead infant was so cataclysmically unfair wasn’t it? Jennings was an archetype bruiser throughout. I really couldn’t decide whether I liked him or not however he played the role to a T.
Andrew Galea’s heavy Slav accent may have belied his thespian abilities however his relatively brief appearance was full of Sturm und Drang. Like a meteor he hurtled onstage to do his worst however there was one brief moment when he moved me. Lying over Ian’s freshly raped body the soldier began to sob. War forces ordinary decent human beings into becoming monsters. The soldier’s suicide moments later drove the fact home that there actually is a limit to depravity and the man just could not live with himself any longer.
Blasted is not a play to be entertained by as some theatergoers may have thought. Be warned. You are going to be put miles away out your comfort zone and witness things that you would not imagine happening in front of your very eyes in your wildest dreams. This was the gist of the conversation I had later with the play’s director Dave Barton. This is a play to make you think. A play that presents situations that are difficult to accept. But they do happen. Once they are brought piecemeal into the comfort of our cocooned lives we too feel psychologically raped along with these three desperados teetering on the edge of an erupting volcano.
I do not think that this play was redeemed in any way. Its negativity is painful and even its attempts at humour fall foul as one always knows somehow that the action pinpoints to situations where laughter is utterly inappropriate. There is no humour in death or on ghoulishness. Just a dark infinite black void.
Kenneth Zammit Tabona, Times Review
Sarah Kane’s Blasted (Unifaun at St James Cavalier) has been praised to the skies by authors like Harold Pinter and Edward Bond (whose Lear foreshadowed the violence and inhuman behaviour of Kane’s play) and is clearly one of the key plays of the late 20th century. Its vivid use of violence and cruelty, whether in sexual relations or in anti-social behaviour, cannot fail to impress anyone who sits through its over 90 minutes of uninterrupted action with a strong image of the hideousness of man’s inhumanity to man, even in our own days, whether in war or in individual relations.
The quiet message of the need for love to make our society one in which life becomes possible comes through in spite of the hideousness of the events that lead up to the final moments, but I cannot help asking myself why Kane had to pile it on so much.
Despite her undoubted brilliance, she suffered from a mental illness that led her to commit suicide a few years after writing this play, and I cannot help feeling this might have affected her judgment. For a good many critics , British or other , who have praised the play without serious reser vation , what I see as the play’s overkill does not seem to exist.Where I am certainly at one with these other critics lies in the originality of the play’s structure. The first, and longer, half is in a naturalistic mode. A middleaged and utterly cynical journalist, Ian, who writes sensationali st reports for a tabloid newspaper, and who appears to be in the intelligence service (he wears a pistol under his armpit) brings to a posh English hotel a girl in her early 20s, Cate, whom he desperately wants to seduce.
Cate is immature and slightly subnormal intellectually . She sucks her thumb and stutters under stress , and her strong Christian belief enables her to resist Ian’s various attempts to have sex with her. Ian drinks gin and smokes steadily throughout this first part , despite his bad cough. In fact, he knows he has only months to live, and wants to live it up before he dies, but it is only when Cate has one of the fainting fits from which she suffers that he actually rapes her.
Her realisation of this act changes her; she too becomes violent, and uses sex in order to hurt Ian even though she remains half in love with him, but the play itself changes radically a little later when, following the sounds of warlike fighting in the street outside , a soldier bursts into the room.
The darkish sex comedy of the opening part now becomes the darkest of expressionistic plays as the starving and brutal soldier plays with Ian (Cate has got away) like a cat with a mouse. He has all the food and drink he can find and his contempt for Ian, whom he sees as a softy, grows larger.
After narrating all the pitiless acts of murder and sexual violence he has performed, and confessing his hatred for mankind, responsible for the brutal murder of the girl he loved, the soldier becomes angrier and angrier as he discovers that Ian writes about ordinary sensational crimes but not about people, like the soldier himself, whom war has changed from normal human beings into sadistic monsters. As a result he rapes Ian and, most hideously of all , sucks out Ian’s eyeballs and eats them, after which he kills himself . Here Kane outdoes the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear and of Lear in Edward Bond’s Lear.
The last scene, though involving more unpleasantness such as cannibalism , and Ian’s despair and desire to die, mutes into one of pity and mercy. Cate comes back with a newborn baby given to her by a desperate mother. She wants it to live, and refuses to let Ian kill himself. When the baby dies, she buries him, puts a rudimentary cross over the grave and prays , despite Ian’s sceptical comments on God and prayer. But Cate has changed, for she is ready to prostitute herself to get food for herself and for Ian. Ian appears to die at one point but comes back to life very soon in time to receive food and drink from Cate, and the last line of the play is Ian’s “Thank you” to Cate.
What is the relationship between the first and second parts of the play? I shall quote what David Greig has written: “It is as though the act of rape [of Cate by Ian] which blasts the inner world of both victim and perpetrator, has also destroyed the world outside the room.” What academics like to call the microcosm of the two lives has triggered off a macrocosm that is just as brutal and merciless , except that this revelation leads Cate and Ian to make the first steps towards a different existence right at the end.
Dave Barton, the American director of this production, has largely overcome the problems caused by the studio environment at St James Cavalier. Either he or the producer took a decision to tone down one or two of the harsher moments such as the rape of the unconscious Cate , whereas other moments such as the rape of Ian by the soldier involved the nudity of both partners.
The semi-gloom following the explosion that damages the room soon after the soldier’s entrance makes such “business” as the eating of Ian’s eyeballs and Ian’s eating of the dead baby less visually disturbing even if the sound effects of the latter is stomachchurning enough. All sound effects and light effects are excellent and help to make the action grip.
The production’s weakness lies in Barton’s lavish use of lengthy pauses in both parts , when on several occasions one would have expected tighter cues , actions much more rapid. A play of this nature and length played without an interval needs to be much charier with pauses and long silences. This is not Beckett or Pinter.
Ian and Cate are played very strongly by Bryan Jennings and Jo Caruana. Jenning’s Ian is a man who has led a life without the bonds of law or morality, and impending death has made him worse. He is coarse and restless and is clearly bent on having his way with Cate , but at the same time he betrays unconsciously – and here the performance is at its subtlest – a true affection for Cate even when he is abusing her.
In the second part, Ian is deflated though he does have moments of defiance, and after his rape and blinding his arrogance disappears entirely and even his critique of Cate’s religious beliefs is gentle, almost avuncular. This is an Ian who, despite his many faults, is a man we can understand, and whose final redemption makes us rejoice.
Caruana’s Cate also succeeds both technically and emotionally . Her voice , her little movements of the head and of the limbs, make us see her insecurity, her need to be loved, while strength comes into her voice whenever she defends her religion . In l ater scenes , as she realises that sex can be a tool of love, her resolve grows stronger until at the end she truly finds herself as she sees what she can do to others in the midst of social breakdown. The performance develops beautifully and at the end she rightly becomes Kane’s icon of redemption.
As a whole, Andrew Galea’s portrait of the brutal Soldier, not so callous that he cannot remember love and tenderness i n flashes , is effective . It is in the detail that it suffers , such as in the inconsistency of his accent, but his important role in the play is never truly weakened.
-Paul Xuereb, The Sunday Times
pictures by Joseph A. Borg