Sarah Kane's plays have been overshadowed by their violence and her suicide. But as well as showing the worst of humanity, they are funny and full of loveby Serena Kutchinsky / March 3, 2015 / Leave a comment
Published in March 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
A “disgusting feast of filth… which appears to know no bounds of decency.” This was a typical charge hurled at Sarah Kane’s first play, Blasted, when it opened at the Royal Court 20 years ago. Blasted, and its author, achieved infamy overnight. Critics took grim pleasure in listing the play’s horrors, which include rape, eyeball-gouging, excrement eating and cannibalism. There were calls in the tabloid press for the theatre to shut its doors, and the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker savaged it on Newsnight. Kane was written off in the broadsheets as “the naughtiest girl in the class”—an amoral purveyor of shock.
The plays were shocking and still are. Kane is a difficult playwright, best known for how her career began and how it ended—with her suicide in 1999. She left behind a compact body of work: five plays, one short film and two newspaper articles. Parallels are inevitably drawn with Sylvia Plath. To some of her fans, Kane is a hero who dressed in black, had affairs with women and kick-started an aggressive theatrical style known as “In Yer Face.” To others she is bad box office—her work is rarely produced commercially in this country, and has never transferred to the West End or been performed at the National Theatre.
Yet on the continent she is regarded as one of the 20th century’s most significant dramatists. In 2004, there were 17 simultaneous productions of her work in Germany, where the theatres dimmed their lights when she died. Harold Pinter and Caryl Churchill championed her. Now a new season in Sheffield will revive and reappraise her legacy. Was she simply a purveyor of shock? Do we react differently to that shock now? And do the serious themes of her work—domestic violence, civil war, cruelty—make her work still feel urgent and important?
Born in 1971 in Essex, religion loomed large in her early life. Her family brought her up as an evangelical Christian, though she later lost her faith, describing it as “full spirit-filled, born-again lunacy.” Her passion for the theatre started at school, where she directed plays by Anton Chekhov and William Shakespeare, and in her final year played truant to help direct a play at the Soho Theatre. A drama degree at Bristol University followed, where she acted in and directed student plays. University friends such as the Scottish playwright David Greig, who wrote the introduction to her Complete Plays, describe her as fun loving and gentle, but fiercely protective of her ideas. On one occasion a tutor accused her of writing a “pornographic essay”; in response she threw porn magazines at him and said if he wanted to masturbate he could use them. A role in Howard Barker’s play about the aftermath of the English Civil War, Victory, alongside Greig and Simon Pegg, helped shape her style, with Barker’s use of violence and dark humour leaving its mark.