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Reed Birney and Marin Ireland in Sarah Kane's "Blasted," directed by Sarah Benson, Soho Rep, 2008. Photo: Simon Kane

On a Burning Altar
By Caridad Svich

By Sarah Kane
Soho Rep
46 Walker St.
Box office: 212-35203101


The violation and near sacrifice of a colonial body is at the center of Sarah Kane's 1995 play Blasted, now receiving its New York premiere at Soho Rep under Artistic Director Sarah Benson's direction. Ian -- a bigoted Welsh journalist -- enters an anonymously corporate, boutique hotel room in Leeds at the top of the play, with the specter of illness haunting him, sex on his mind, and a young, lower-class epileptic woman named Cate, whom he has been molesting for years, in tow. The play thus begins as an encounter between two damaged, complex souls: an aggressor and his victim. A one-night stand is in the offing, and the first half of the play focuses on the violent, sexually explicit, demeaning dance of desire between them. Outside, a war is raging, and soon that war, embodied by a distraught and mentally destroyed young soldier, will come literally crashing into the room of wayward privilege and temporary protection.

Damaged youth and the abuse and misuse of adolescents by an older generation enthralled to sex and consumerism is a theme that runs through many New Brutalist plays of the 1990s. This genre of British writing included Mark Ravenhill's Shopping and F***ing, Jez Butterworth's Mojo, American expatriate Phyllis Nagy's Weldon Rising, and Philip Ridley's Pitchfork Disney. This theme reached its apex in David Harrower's Blackbird. Since Sarah Kane's suicide in 1999, critical discussions of her work have tended to view it through the lens of autobiography and her troubled relationship with depression and despair. Enough time has now passed, however, to reconsider it in the context of the era when it was written.

In 1996 the Royal Court Theatre and Out of Joint presented Ravenhill's provocatively titled Shopping and F***ing at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs, directed by Max Stafford-Clark. The play became the buzz of London and attracted a large target audience of theatergoers under 25. The Cool Britannia youth aesthetic dominated the English arts scene in the 1990s from then on, but it did not begin with Ravenhill's signature play. The real, unlikely catalyst was Sarah Kane's Blasted the year before (also at the Royal Court), along with the media uproar over it.

Critic Aleks Sierz in his book In-yer-face Theatre (2001) says that Kane's play was significant as a cultural marker because of its extraordinary vision as well as for the controversy it excited. He also notes, though, that even Blasted was not the first work of its kind. The spirit of shock was already in the air (again) in visual arts, performance, and film, often described in a facile manner as "the Quentin Tarantino effect." Theater, always slightly behind culturally, was just beginning to catch on. Blasted contains scenes of extreme violence, but it is not the superficial shock-fest that the scandal surrounding its London premiere suggested. It is a text founded on the ethics of despair and an investigation of the irrational in human existence. Only many years after Kane's death would the play be seen by reviewers as more than a string of escalating acts of physical and emotional violence.

The media scandal around Blasted did draw attention to the untapped vitality of new voices writing for the theater, and actually encouraged producers to seek out, commission and program their venues with plays written by and aimed at the 20 to 30-year-old bracket. Stephen Daldry, artistic director of the Royal Court for much of that decade, was the chief promoter of these new voices, and the Royal National Theatre Studio, the Bush Theatre and other venues were also supportive. A savvy media player as well as a strong, ambitious stage director, Daldry (whose work will be on Broadway this season with his staging of his film Billy Elliott) made the Court the top destination for writing that would focus on the post-Thatcher generation. Writers such as Judy Upton, Nick Grosso and Joe Penhall were encouraged to write drama without having to write state-of-the-nation plays, as David Hare, David Edgar and others did before them. Young was hip and cool. Old was stodgy and out. Nothing new in a hipster-focused international media culture, of course, but England (and specifically London-based theaters and critics) embraced the youth phenomenon with a vigor quite unlike any other culture. Kane's career thus benefited greatly from an almost myopic attention paid to young playwrights in England in the 1990s. Her death in 1999 also signaled for many the end of the New Brutalist period--despite the fact that, after Tony Blair came to power in May 1997, New Labour's promotion of a revitalized arts scene in general, and the youth movement in particular, were extremely useful to the new, consumerist project of branding Britain as Cool.

There is a link, albeit modest, in the tenor of the "angry young men's" writing of 1950s Britain with the New Brutalism of the 1990s. Both movements marked a return to the domestic arena, the private realm, in order to illuminate global concerns. Kane, in Blasted and Cleansed (1998), examined societies in collapse and ravaged by war, from the vantage point of a singularly private vision. In the kitchen-sink dramas of John Osborne's generation, drama also occurred in private arenas, not in the halls of power and authority. Both movements also contained an unapologetic sense of impassioned idealism and cautious hope, burning at the edges of their rage.

In the second half of Blasted, the stage space is fractured by a mortar shell--an effect made extremely powerful at Soho Rep by the extraordinarily canny scenic design of Louisa Thompson and the lighting design of Tyler Micoleau. At this point, horror and sorrow invade a space already marked by unfeeling sex, and by bodies irrevocably stained by their cruelty and indifference toward each other. Before that, Ian, played with clinical precision by Reed Birney, comes to represent the colonial, patriarchal body. He demands and claims his territory--Cate's damaged body and psyche--in the anonymous hotel space. Cate, played with shell-shocked anomie and humor by Marin Ireland, sucks her thumb, in a gesture of regression, and falls into epileptic seizures that suspend time and illuminate, in the form of brief visions, the history of her fragile emotional state.

The two characters are caught in an unholy war of domination, submission and protracted revenge. Ian's death-marked body (racked by an unexplained cough and vestiges of what seems to be cancer) seeks to conquer her youth and damaged psyche. Her pliant body seeks comfort and alienation from him at the same time; the destroyed and the destroyer are involved in an eternally symbiotic relationship, as in Genet's work.Louis Cancelmi and Reed Birney in Sarah Kane's "Blasted," directed by Sarah Benson, Soho  Rep, 2008. Photo: Simon Kane. A Soldier, played with cool ferocity and strange, eerie tenderness by Louis Cancelmi, barges into the room. He terrorizes, sodomizes and cannibalizes Ian, all the while mourning the brutal death of his girlfriend in war and the deaths of all those he has murdered in battle and in acts of mindless, psychotic wartime brutality. The play, blasted out of civilization and ending on a note of ironic thanks, ends up mourning for the colonized body: for states subjected to colonization and for bodies rent by despair. In Blasted, what has disappeared at the beginning of the play is improbably regained by destructive means inthe end: an ability to experience sorrow. The point seems to be to recognize civilization's disappearance and embrace an elemental saudade (nostalgic longing).

Sarah Benson's committed, honest, and emotional yet clinically detached production locates the play's mordant humor and near nihilism, its strangely disembodied pain, and its equally strange sense of hope. There is a practical, exposed quality to the final third of the evening -- when the stage is trashed, broken apart, and de-glamorized in every sense possible -- that demands that the audience consider what is not "cool," easily digested and consumed by culture. If indeed we live with war and its after-effects every day, how do we go on living? And how are we implicated by our way of living in continuing cycles of destruction and profit? The production and the play ask these questions in a bracing and sometimes naïve manner. This, after all, was Kane's first play, and while there's no question that it is an astonishing first play, it nevertheless bears the hallmarks of a young writer exposing her influences and sense of stagecraft to the light. In her subsequent plays Phaedra's Love, Cleansed, Crave, 4:48 Psychosis and the short filmscript Skin, Kane found more subtle and idiosyncratic ways of communicating her concerns about society's ability to mourn and embrace tragedy.

The young British writers of the 1990s were once dubbed "the new nihilists" by Matt Wolf. To me, though, their works are more usefully viewed as dialogic, elegiacally driven reactions to the postmodern, nihilistic condition. They are like the 19th-century plays and novels written in response to the industrial revolution, focusing on how the human being might save himself or herself from turning into a mere cog in the grand machine. Delineating short-circuited lives, Blasted, despite its shock veneer, reveals a humanistic interest in exploring how the individual is corrupted by capitalist greed and unbounded power-broking (seen here in the arena of the bedroom). Ian "buys" the outsider Cate a night out in the hotel in exchange for a demand of forced sex. This othered Cate, victimized by Ian, then seeks her revenge on his up-market clothes and status. The othered Soldier then sodomizes Ian and blinds him to the world to which he has already metaphorically blinded himself in his privileged shell. At the end of the day the question is: who owns whom, and what exactly do they own?

From one point of view, Blasted is part of a transgressive tradition. Two years after its premiere at the Royal Court, David Cronenberg's film Crash (based on the J.G. Ballard novel) appeared and created a minor scandal, as did A.M. Holmes' pedophilia novel The End of Alice, and Marcus Harvey's Myra, a portrait of the murderer Myra Hindley, which had been exhibited in the Royal Academy's "Sensation" show. Kane's work as a whole can be seen as part of a culture that was at the time wholeheartedly embracing the liberating function of transgression and exhausting it at the same time. By the beginning of the 21st century, transgressive art was recognized almost uniformly by critics as a modern cliché. What, then, continues to hold our interest in Kane's work?

Marin Ireland and Reed Birney in Sarah Kane's "Blasted," directed by Sarah Benson, Soho Rep, 2008. Photo: Simon Kane. Part of the answer is the way she deals with sex: sex as commerce, image-making, subjugation and domination. In Kane's work, nothing matters and everything matters. Constant, fickle arousal is the norm. Sex is the field of play where all transactions are played out, personal cost be damned. But in Blasted, of course, there is a price paid. At the end of a night of rough sex and escalating violation of Cate, Ian -- the money player struggling along in his middle-class existence with his bigoted, white supremacist views -- receives a comeuppance at the hands of the mad soldier. This soldier (whom Kane originally conceived as a veteran of the Balkan conflict) subjects Ian, already spiritually destroyed, to psychological and physical destruction.

This belated New York premiere of Blasted serves as both a historical marker and a wake-up call challenging American theatergoers and practitioners to face the atrocities of humanity head-on, unblinkingly, rather than succumb to an increasing theatrical penchant for unbounded whimsy and ineffectual decorativeness in new writing. The production is a welcome, audacious and elegantly brutal (not "in-yer-face") presentation of a play written in blood and fire, crackling with a writer's bristling anger and caustic humor at humanity gone terribly wrong. I can't think of a better time to experience Kane's blistering sacrificial vision, as an empire wanes under the weight of hubris and war-mongering, a world-wide market sways desperately, and a few hundred people in a theater are asked to behold the specter of civilization splayed on an altar signaling, to quote Artaud, "through the flames."


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