Friday, December 12, 2008


Sarah Kane’s play is one of the most difficult in the repertoire of contemporary theatre. This isn’t because Blasted is hard to understand—it’s in fact quite transparent about what it means. Neither is it because the play’s form is terribly unconventional. Kane’s interventions into the typical arc of narrative and her literal deconstruction of the physical space in Blasted address her preoccupations with a devolving theatrical structure apparent in much of her work.

The play’s difficulty lies in the demands it makes on actors to embody horrific actions prompted by the play’s representation of an eternal war and the cruel necessities required for social survival. Blasted’s complexity also comes from the demands it makes on spectators to witness these actions and come to terms with our own complicity in or responsibility to what they imply.

I’ve taught Blasted often, mostly in undergraduate classes where one of the first questions we raise to Kane’s play is how in the world it can be staged. The many brutal acts presented for the audience’s consideration escalate in their intensity over the course of the play from sexual assault to cannibalism. Kane’s stage directions describe each act with almost prosaic matter-of-factness and no real assistance in how to manage the theatrical sleight-of-hand necessary to make them look real. Because violence—military, social, sexual, gendered, raced—pervades the play, it requires evidence of its effects: blood running from the actors’ eyes and from between their legs; the corpse of a baby that a character consumes, leaving a gaping red wound where he’s chewed at its flesh.

By the play’s end, the excessive violence has moved into Grand Guignol territory, running so over-the-top that it only underlines how the play refuses realism and everything for which it stands. That spectators aren’t inured to brutality by Blasted’s final image might in fact be Kane’s point. In director Sarah Benson’s excellent production at Soho Rep, the violence remains ghastly even as it gets so extraordinary it can’t possibly be believed. If you’re not moved by what Kane and Benson force you to witness, I imagine you’re at least compelled to examine why you’re able to protect yourself from the production’s emotional impact.

Benson’s production of Blasted progresses physically from a scene of bourgeois propriety to one in which the world has been turned completely upside down, literally blasted off its hinges by an unnamed, escalating conflict that moves from outside to in. The audience gazes (for a bit too long, while ushers make sure every seat in the house is filled with wait-listed spectators) at the pre-set, which looks like an up-scale, corporate hotel room, with bed linens in muted taupes and ivories, and matching curtains and rich woodwork all aligned to be comfortable but anonymous.

Into this highly conventional scene comes Ian and Cate, a most unusual couple, the nature of whose relationship is difficult to distinguish for most of the play. He seems a seedy businessman of some sort, wearing a rumpled shirt and suit, until he takes off his jacket to reveal a gun hanging from a holster under his arm. If the gun persuades spectators to read him as a man with special (and state-sanctioned) authority, that presumption is disabused when he calls in a story to an editor and later admits that he’s a journalist. But the gun is his to wield when he likes, and he does, usually in the sadistic sexual play he coerces Cate to perform.

The proximity of sex and violence in Blasted is underlined in this production by the revolver’s omnipresence. The prop marks how the characters trade power back and forth (as well as representing one of the most potent semiotic signs in the history of theatre). Ian’s gun stops being dominant only when a rifle enters the scene, trumping the hand weapon in brute force.

Ian’s gun underlines his masculinity—in some ways, it is his masculinity, since before long, it’s clear that his maleness needs propping up with external help. Early in the first scene, he strips off his clothes and asks Cate to put her mouth on him; when she refuses, doubled over in laughter, he says, “No? Fine. Because I stink?” The stench of Ian’s mortality infuses the play and the production. He’s dying, in fact, before he’s killed, his lungs collapsing (even as he continues to chain-smoke) and his liver corroded by cirrhosis (even as he continues to swallow pints of gin and glasses of champagne).

Reed Birney plays Ian with such conviction that his coughing spells—which we hear when he steps offstage to the bathroom, and later see, as he spits up blood onto a pillow—are unnerving and revolting, as though he’s turning himself literally inside-out as he tries to breathe. Despite his dance with death, Ian obsesses about sex, masturbating when Cate refuses him, fornicating with her listless body when she faints from one of her frequent, inexplicable spells, and taunting the young woman about her lack of experience and attractiveness, even as his sexual demands on her grow more forceful and lewd.

The sight of Birney’s middle-aged white body forcing itself onto Cate is repulsive but poignant, as if Kane (and Benson) suggest that male power prevails despite its packaging. Part of the terror Ian provokes is his utter ordinariness; as played here by Birney, he’s neither young nor virile, muscular nor particularly good-looking. The power of his masculinity defines him even as it kills him, but it seems ordained culturally rather than biologically in this production.

The enigmatic young Cate (Marin Ireland) seems to accompany Ian to this room willingly, yet she resists all his sexual advances. She appears somehow disabled both mentally and physically; her vocabulary is simple, her speech halting, and she suffers what could be epileptic fits that send her into trembling paroxysms from which she passes out cold. And yet as the play grows ever more grisly, she alone of the three characters—and the only woman—finds her strength.

Ian rapes her; she wakes curled into a fetal ball on sheets covered in bright red blotches of blood. Although she’s clearly hurt, she’s also angry, and proceeds to exact revenge on an increasingly hapless Ian. As his physical condition deteriorates, she thrives. Cate ends up the survivor, and upends the power balance between her and Ian by becoming his protector and nurturer, reversing the roles and expectations Kane establishes at the start.

Ireland (late of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles) plays Cate with utterly convincing, strangely appealing fortitude. The role requires the character to be at once nondescript and strange enough to hold interest, a balance Ireland strikes with emotional intelligence and physical precision. We’re never invited to identify with Cate (or with either of the male characters, for that matter), but in Ireland’s grounded, meticulously modulated interpretation, she becomes increasingly admirable and always compelling.

The play progresses scene by scene, with each detailing the degradations of Cate’s and Ian’s bodies and the space in which they try but don’t succeed to relate to one another. A soldier (Louis Cancelmi) enters at the end of the second scene, when Cate has escaped Ian’s clutches through the bathroom window. The power dynamic turns instantly, as the soldier (nameless and iconic) kicks aside Ian’s gun and orders the older man around with the point of his rifle.

This soldier appears to be of color, although it’s hard to tell the shade of his skin underneath the filth and blood and muck that cake his face and arms. He speaks with accented English of indistinguishable provenance. These visual and aural choices ensure that the soldier (called in the text simply “Soldier”) appears both non-specific and ubiquitous, a representation of the “Other” with whom the West is at war now and always.

The soldier quickly trumps Ian’s masculinity and his control over the scene. Race and physical and social stature matter not at all in a world where only the size of one’s gun bestows authority and power. If the hotel room was ever private space—given that it’s only, after all, a corporate illusion of “home”—the soldier’s invasion makes the first step toward the ever blurring boundaries between outside and inside, public and private, in which this conflagration takes place. The world (nominally somewhere in the UK) at which Ian has sneered through the hotel room’s window blinds—observing what he calls a “Wogland” being destroyed by “slag”—has permeated the room. The “other” has met him on his own turf to assert hegemony.

The political turns quickly personal, as Soldier sates his hunger by wolfing down the breakfast Ian ordered for himself and Cate, and then turns his fascination to Ian’s body. Although Ian asks repeatedly if the soldier will kill him, Soldier protests that if he did, he’d destroy his only companion, and would be alone and lonely. Where earlier in the play, Ian wanted Cate to end his already shortening life, once the soldier arrives, some primal impulse for self-preservation asserts itself and Ian doesn’t want to die. Ian watches the soldier eat his food; Ian sits pinned to his chair across the room, gasping for breath.

Birney pants loudly, mechanically, almost like a dog, and with palpable, ancient anxiety. His straightforward action, made almost dispassionately yet with full conviction, says more about the moment than might a more emotive, expressive choice. Birney as Ian simply pants, and spectators can feel him dripping with fear. The sound of his terror accompanies the soldier’s messy gorging like some elemental symphony.

In the script, Kane says that the soldier “very quickly devours both breakfasts. He sighs with relief and burps.” What our eye scans in seconds on the play’s page extends over a longer period of time in production. Even though the soldier wolfs down the meal, minutes go by as we watch him eat. We see the character/actor take every bite, chew it, take another, chew it, and digest it. The temporal dimension of live performance reminds us again of mortality—the actor’s and our own. Although he arrives on the scene as a malignant force, his hunger makes him human, and his determination to survive reminds us that he, too, is mortal.

The soldier’s hands are filthy and his face and arms are covered in black tar and blackening blood. His military uniform—unmarked by nation or ethnicity—is grimy and torn, as though he’s been in the trenches forever. Cancelmi, as the soldier, eats Ian’s food with an almost spiritual hunger, using his fingers to wipe up every morsel, pushing crumbs into his mouth without swallowing, wrenching every bit of nourishment from the meal as if he hasn’t eaten in a very long time.

Cancelmi’s deeply physical performance is intuitive and sensual. He plays the soldier as if his body has become a permeable membrane, soaking up information, sustenance, and sensation. When the soldier searches the room, he knows a woman has been present because he can smell the sex. He finds Cate’s underwear, which he rubs over his face with physical hunger. When he announces that Cate is missing, he mounts the bed and urinates on the pillows, marking his territory like a dog. Just as he makes his mark, as his piss streams onto the bedding, the world tears apart.

The blast that rends the room (and the play and the set) is loud, terrifying, and wholly unexpected, startling spectators with the sudden vehemence of the cataclysm. Just as the soldier—the underclass, the person of color, the “other”—comes to power, the world as we know it (with Kane always questioning just who comprises that “we”) begins to end. Dissonant sounds accompany the abrupt black-out and echo over the long moment the audience is plunged into darkness. Metal crashes against metal, steel seems to tear into pieces, motors rev and roar, until finally, the sounds of the apocalypse fade into rain pounding on the roof.

Ian and the soldier are even more bloodied and disheveled when the lights come up. The once pristine hotel room has completely disintegrated: the pretty wood that framed the bed now hangs askew, forcing spectators to watch the remainder of the play with a kind of canted vision. The door has fallen off its hinges, opening the room to a hallway that no longer seems to exist. The flooring has torn off; Ian has been thrown into the cavern of the under-stage, amongst steel beams and debris. The lighting has grown harsh, intrusive, inescapable, and cold.

Without registering their changed circumstances, except that his hunger and thirst is slated, the soldier approaches Ian, touching him, taunting him, refusing to kill him. Instead, he turns Ian on his belly and mounts him, pulling down Ian’s trousers and his own, lying on top of Ian’s back, holding his shoulder, murmuring into his ear, penetrating him, and crying hysterically and wordlessly.

This explicit rape scene feels interminable; we see (and practically feel) every thrust and shudder of the soldier’s sex and Ian’s violation. And yet the scene’s intimacy surprises almost as much as it repulses. The soldier cries with inarticulate grief that’s never named yet profoundly felt. He holds on to Ian literally as if for dear life, clinging to a stranger he can only reach by exercising the artificial power of his rifle. Ian suffers under the soldier’s weight and his sexual violence. But both men seem pitiful here, reduced to connecting with another human being only through their mutual degradation.

At the end of the scene, the soldier pulls Ian toward him with a gesture that looks almost tender, and then eats Ian’s eyeballs out of his face. Kane’s stage directions say, “The Soldier grips Ian’s head in his hands. He puts his mouth over one of Ian’s eyes, sucks it out, bites it off, and eats it. He does the same to the other eye.” In time and space, such actions can hardly be as mundane as they sound in Kane’s description.

In this production, the Soldier eats out Ian’s eyes in a final, primal act of urgent connection, as if by ingesting these organs, he will achieve Ian’s vision, and will bond with him in some mutual if artificially ordained act of insight. He chews Ian’s eyeballs with primordial need as Ian howls in pain, and the scene crashes to black. When the lights rise a moment later, the Soldier lies curled in a ball upstage near the door, away from Ian, presumably dead. Ian is left to haunt the bombed landscape, his empty eye sockets filled with bright red blood, blind.

Cate wanders back into what’s left of the room holding a baby bundled in a dirty blanket. Its mewling cries (which, through a bit of deft stagecraft, seem to come directly from Cate’s arms) rise then peter out, as Cate soon announces that the baby is dead. She rips floorboards from center stage under which she lays the body, ripping up pieces of Ian’s coat to tie two pieces of wood into a makeshift cross. Cate prays for the baby, “just in case,” then leaves to look for food, implying that in this new economy, she can sell herself in exchange for sustenance. She leaves Ian alone with the soldier’s body.

Director Benson leads the audience through several quick-cut tableaux of Ian’s existential despair as he tries to survive on his own. He cradles the dead soldier in his arms; he masturbates ineffectively; he shits; and finally, he digs up the baby’s body and bites into its flesh, chewing cravenly. Then he rewraps the body, places it back in the hole, and climbs in after it, until only his head—his eye sockets empty, torn, and bloodied—protrudes from the floor. In the script, Kane says, “He dies with relief.”

In production, though, given that we can no longer see his eyes, and that Birney’s face is caked in dried stage blood, spectators can’t quite divine his demise. In fact, when it starts to rain on Ian, Birney can’t help but react to the water pouring directly onto his head. After his scripted death, Kane says, “It starts to rain on him, coming through the roof. Eventually.” Then Ian says, “Shit,” resurrected into a world in which he’s still blind and still trapped, still excremental and elemental.

Cate reenters what’s become the graveyard of the stage (and the world) in a virginal white shift, bearing food: a sausage (even though earlier in the play, she’s repulsed by meat), bread, and gin. She sits by Ian, remarking that he’s “sitting under a hole,” an epistemologically impossible place that Ian inhabits nonetheless. He’s become Oedipus as Winnie in Happy Days, neatly bridging tragedy and the absurd in a way only available in theatre and performance.

Cate squats beside him, wraps herself in a hotel sheet, breaks off bits of bread, and feeds several crusts into Ian’s mouth, washing them down with gin. Reduced to acting with only his mouth, Ian/Birney intones, “Thank you,” as the lights go to black.

Blasted ends with a limited but clever and able young woman sustaining a man who’d once been her oppressor, offering a glimpse of forgiveness and cleansing gratitude. The final, quiet moment in Benson’s production offers the audience the barest sense of relief and peace, after we’ve been shaken emotionally and physically. (The noise that covers the scene changes is loud enough to make the theatre’s floorboards and seats tremble and rock.) Cate feeding Ian represents Blasted’s only moment of grace, and Kane and Benson temper its effect by placing this final exchange in a post-apocalyptic world in which such connections can hardly make a difference.

Kane’s brutal, unrelentingly dark vision of social relations is wrenching, perhaps more so at a time when American culture grasps at the possibilities of hope. In Kane’s dystopia, redemption isn’t possible. But perhaps the image of Cate breaking bread with the much reduced Ian represents a shred of potential for mutual human sustenance to prevail over the voracious, cut-throat competitions of recent history.

Kane’s disturbing vision reads, to me, as profoundly feminist, since Blasted deconstructs the social building blocks of gender and power even as it lays bear colonialism, imperialism, misogyny, and racism. After writing five short, elliptical, grimly powerful and structurally innovative and intense plays, Sarah Kane committed suicide. She was 28. The Soho Rep production is Blasted’s first American premiere. It’s a rich, devastating, experience of theatre, politics, and insight, which demonstrates the potential of live theatre to literally rock our world.

Moved and provoked,

The Feminist Spectator