Entering the expansive black space of the Arcola Theatre in East London, signs warned audience members that loud sound effects would be used throughout this production. Anyone sensitive enough to be disturbed by a bit of noise would perhaps be well advised to avoid this play.
Sarah Kane, of course, is synonymous with controversial and shocking theatre and this notoriety helped to draw the masses along to the Oxford Stage Company’s production of her third play.
Cleansed, which hasn’t been staged since its debut at the Royal Court in 1998, explores the theme of forbidden and all-consuming love among the inhabitants of an unidentified institution.
These poor characters are all controlled by a psychopath called Tinker (Paul Brennan), who inflicts brutal tortures upon them in a bid to test their capacity for the emotion.
Grace (Polly Frame) is in love with her dead brother Graham (Garry Collins), while the mentally sub-normal Robin (Craig Gazey) is in love with Grace. Rod (Sean Gallagher) and Carl (Toby Dantzic) are in love with each other but their keeper, Tinker doesn’t approve of any of this, until he in turn falls in love with a lap dancer (Lisa Daveney). The damage has already been done, however.
Within ten minutes of the play’s opening we are exposed to a man being injected in the eyeball with heroin, a gay kiss and full-on nudity, suggesting that Cleansed is as daring as Kane’s reputation implies. But this beginning is mild preparation for what lies ahead. And though the violence is extreme and the sex is explicit, it is the fact that raw emotion is laid so brutally bare by the actors, direction and writing that proves to be the most shocking.
A scene in which Grace strips naked to dress in the clothes once worn by her dead brother proves to be as hard to stomach as the scene in which she has sex with him, while the sight of Carl, attempting to dance for his lover after his hands have been amputated is as brutal as watching the amputation itself. One of the most difficult scenes, however, was one of the most simple. Watching Tinker force-feed Robin a whole box of Terry’s All Gold was unbearably tense despite being played out with no dialogue.
In the wrong hands this could all have been tasteless and gratuitous but it is to the credit of the Oxford Stage Company, director Sean Holmes and the excellent cast that this classy production was full of a tenderness amid the extremities. Despite some visibility problems, the warehouse-like setting of the Arcola Theatre, added to the ambience superbly and the luxurious space was used creatively by Holmes.
What emerges from Cleansed is that Kane deserves her reputation as a significant dramatist. Although it is hard to identify a strong message emerging from this piece, what it does prove is that her ability to be challenge theatrical boundaries remains untested. The emotion she provokes through her writing, and in this case how it is performed and visualised, leads to comparisons with artist Tracey Emin. Both know how to shock in a society where taboos are few and far between but the secret of their shock value is the hard-hitting honesty lying at the heart of their work.
It would be difficult to deny that waking up the morning after Cleansed doesn’t leave a bad taste in the mouth. It is a bit like remembering a nightmare, which lingers in the mind throughout the working week. The longer it lingers, however, the more you realise the power yielded by this special piece of theatre.