When Blasted opened at the Royal Court Theatre in London in 1995, it caused quite an uproar within the theatre community there.
Critics largely dismissed the play; the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker called it a “disgusting feast of filth.” Alternately, a large band of playwrights, Caryl Churchill and Harold Pinter among them, championed the work and defended it against charges that it was obscene and inane.
Now, over ten years later, with all the hoopla having settled, the play can be assessed as just what it is – an exciting, exacting piece of modern theatre. Since those tumultuous days, Sarah Kane’s legacy in theatre history has been cemented. Despite having killed herself in 1999 at the age of 28, her five plays have found continued life both in Britain and around the world. Until this production, however, Kane’s Blasted had never been seen on the New York stage.
Now, under the firecracker direction of Soho Rep artistic director Sarah Benson, that tragic error has been upended. As performed by an electric cast of three, this fine production is one that should be required viewing for self-respecting New York theatergoers, bar none.
The setting is a hotel room in Leeds, a familiar sort of space (here stylishly designed by Louisa Thompson). We meet our protagonists, Cate and Ian, who are on an overnight getaway. The two enter the room; Ian plants a gun behind one of the pillows. From the first line of the play (Ian’s “I’ve shat in better places than this.”) we can sense that something is off-kilter. But exactly how demented things will get is totally inestimable.
We never quite learn how middle-aged Ian, a reporter dying of some smoking-related ailment, has met Cate, an unemployed younger woman he’s known for years. The not-quite-all-there Cate has trouble relating to Ian, who dominates the relationship. He strips naked. “Put your mouth on me,” he commands her. She responds with howling laughter.
The play proceeds with similar unease, chronicling Cate and Ian’s night together and the morning that follows. Soon, however, playwright Kane throws us for a loop, introducing elements of outside warfare in the form of a foreign soldier who invades the hotel room. The soldier, expert in the ways of torture, changes the dynamic of the play, flaying it open to expose the inner workings of cruelty and pain that are Kane’s primary fixations.
The cast of three is uniformly superb. Marin Ireland’s insecure, stuttering Cate is the perfect match for Reed Birney’s controlling Ian. Despite a somewhat distracting accent, Louis Cancelmi is commanding as the soldier, his bloodshot eyes the perfect manifestation of his twisted worldview.
Also excellent are the design elements that surround the trio of players. Thompson’s fluid set design is perfectly crafted to work within the small amount of space she’s given. When war bursts into the apartment, the strictly delineated walls of the hotel room shift and drop away to reveal a sinister, stripped space. Matt Tierney’s sound design, full of blips, static, and squeals is similarly unsettling, particularly as the pressure mounts during the play’s final series of tableaux, full of noise and vibration. His is some of the most effective sound design I’ve witnessed since Gregory Clarke’s for the recent Broadway revival of Journey’s End.
By the play’s end, the hotel room with which we were greeted is totally unrecognizable and so are the characters on-stage. Sarah Kane’s harrowing journey is one that’s difficult to stage, not least because of its complex, almost cinematic violent imagery. Soho Rep, however, has managed to stage this play with dutiful adherence to Kane’s stage directions, and, aided by its masterful cast, it’s a wonder to behold. Just remember to fasten your seatbelts. These characters are going to take you on an extraordinary journey. And it might just leave you a little rattled thanks to the power of truly affecting theatre.