Blasted @ Soho Theatre, London

cast list
Jennifer-Jay Ellison
Neil Fox
Daryl Jackson
Gerard McDermott
David Toole
Adele Walker
Alex Bulmer

directed by
Jenny Sealey
Whenever I see on stage a character buried to the neck in something-or-other, it’s tempting to leap up and yell”Beckett!”, as if it’s all a protracted game of Mornington Crescent. But Sarah Kane’s Blasted is so richly threaded with allusions to Beckett, Aeschylus, Webster and Shakespeare I had to resist, otherwise I would have been bouncing in and out of my seat like a sugar-addled child. The play is all the better for it: there’s a rare pleasure in seeing work so keenly aware of the heritage of theatre’s language.

Blasted begins in a hotel room in Leeds, all crimson roses and scarlet bedspread. Two lovers bait each other: Ian, casually racist, burly in middle-age, toting a gun; and Cate, young and brittle. They play out an uneasy kind of dance, Ian shifting from coaxing to abuse, Cate by turns coquettish and repulsed. When morning comes it seems there’s been a rape: Cate despises Ian, and taunts him with his gun.

The dialogue between the actors in these scenes is remarkably acute: Kane reproduces with uncomfortable accuracy the casual cruelty latent in the most banal conversation between lovers. So far, so Pinter.

There then explodes into the room a soldier, fresh from a war that seems suddenly to be raging just beneath that very hotel room. The soldier rages at Ian first with words, then with the most atrocious acts of violence and degradation. We no longer know when or where we are: he recounts with relish atrocities he’s seen and enacted, and we’re never quite clear whether these took place in Eastern Europe, perhaps, or in a Leeds suburb nearby.

This surreal location-shift presents the play’s real challenge: oh yes, we know there’s atrocious goings-on in villages and towns we can barely pronounce, but here? Not possible – surely not.

At its debut, Blasted was denounced (by the Daily Mail, astonishingly enough) as “a disgusting feast of filth.” It is not. It contains acts I’ll certainly be content never to see again, but to say it offers these as a feast rather makes me doubt that anyone at the offices of the Daily Mail actually saw it.

The play rages against every kind of cruelty offered by one human being to another, whether it’s Ian mocking, or the Soldier raping. What’s more, Kane had that most rare of dramatist’s gifts: she appears to present her audience with something and then turns it absolutely on its head. The Soldier, recounting the rape and torture of his lover, weeps not just for her but for her attackers also: “He ate her eyes. Poor bastard. Poor love.” It’s easy to despise the despicable: being forced to pity them is something else entirely.

In this current production, by the Graeae Theatre Company, all the actors are disabled to some extent. David Toole as the Soldier offers the most complex performance. He moves about the stage on his hands, which adds to his considerable stage presence. Jennifer-Jay Ellison is fragile enough, but suffers from being expected to laugh and weep hysterically several times: there are very few actresses who can do this convincingly, and I’m afraid she made me want to stalk onstage and give her a ringing slap. Gerard McDermott has not the least shred of self-consciousness and invests his lines with dry wit.

The set design adds another layer to the experience: the floor is alarmingly tilted, so that the Soldier, at first glance the most physically at a disadvantage, is far more powerful and at ease than Ian. A vast TV screen hangs behind the stage, where another set of actors perform in sign language. There’s a fascinating disconnect between the acted play and the signed one – Gerard McDermott mimes his gun, his cigarette, his glass of gin: onscreen, Neil Fox has the real thing.

I’m not wholly convinced by the production (sometimes too obviously happy to be ‘only a play’), but I have ever since been telling anyone who’ll listen that Kane was a genius. That she hanged herself in the bathroom at King’s College Hospital before she was thirty is a genuine loss. But don’t take my word for it: take a deep breath, and find out for yourselves.

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