Theatre of cruelty: Sarah Benson's 2008 New York production of Sarah Kane's Blasted. © Sohorep

Sarah Kane, Sheffield Theatres: has her time come?

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 love
March 3, 2015

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.

Her first significant work was produced for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe and performed over two years from 1992 to 1993. Sick is a series of three first-person monologues that tackle rape, eating disorders and sexual identity. Her small crowd were left unsettled. “I remember some stunned silences—the absence of applause is the best sound an audience can make,” recalls her friend and collaborator Vincent O’Connell.

The new season at Sheffield starts with Blasted. Her first full-length play, it was written while completing an MA in playwriting at Birmingham University run by the dramatist David Edgar. Conceived as a response to the Bosnian War (1992-1995), Blasted opens in a luxury hotel room in Leeds with Ian, a middle-aged, gun-toting tabloid journalist attempting to seduce Cate, a naive 21 year old. She resists, and he rapes her. Ian is repellent but his presentation is ambiguous—Kane elicits pity for this alcoholic dying of cancer. In the second act, Kane explodes the play’s naturalistic structure. Civil war breaks out and a soldier invades the room. The play’s form evaporates, the dialogue dissolves and destructive imagery dominates—a bomb blast rocks the hotel room, the solider sucks out and eats Ian’s eyes. By confronting audiences with such brutality, Kane connects a rape in a hotel room and a civil war in Europe. She suggests that a capacity for cruelty lies in us all. “I went to school. I made love with Col. Bastards killed her, now I’m here,” says the soldier, as he rapes Ian with his revolver. Kane used the aesthetic power of terror to make an important point—just as Shakespeare had done in King Lear, another play about physical and moral blindness. But the critics condemned Blasted as the theatrical equivalent of a video nasty.

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
Kane is often grouped with cutting-edge playwrights of the 1990s such as Mark Ravenhill and Anthony Neilson, but she has more in common with classical dramatists. In 1996 she reworked Seneca’s incestuous tragedy about Phaedra’s fateful desire for her stepson Hippolytus. Phaedra’s Love, which Kane also directed at the Gate Theatre in London’s Notting Hill, opens with Hippolytus masturbating into a sock. His inability to feel any emotion other than lust is contrasted with Phaedra’s all-consuming desire for him. Kane’s mordant humour is on full display in the play’s final lines. Hippolytus, whose bowels have been ripped out, lies dying with vultures circling. Smiling, he says he wishes there “could have been more moments like this.”

A theme often overlooked in Kane’s work is love. Cleansed (1998) takes place in a university/concentration camp run by a psychiatrist/sadist named Tinker (after the Mail critic who attacked Blasted). The inmates are outcasts: a gay couple, a mental patient and a grieving sister and her ghost brother. Despite its stark setting, it is a romantic play. “I alerted Sarah to Roland Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse,” says O’Connell, “which contains the most terrible and true sentence—that having your love rejected is like being in a concentration camp.” Kane’s identification with Barthes’s extreme statement reflects her acute emotional sensitivity.

As Tinker probes his victims’ capacity for pain and love, we are asked to consider how truthful a lover’s promise can really be. One lyrical exchange between Rod and his partner Carl shows this: “Listen. I’m just saying this once. I love you now. I’m with you now. I’ll do my best, moment to moment, not to betray you. Now. That’s it. No more. Don’t make me lie to you.” Later, we see their relationship physically torn apart—punishment for being gay. When Carl speaks love his tongue is torn out, when he writes love his hands are cut off. Kane’s own sexuality was fluid, and few details of her past relationships have emerged. But in this perverse parable she challenges common assumptions about gender and sexuality.

Each play inhabits a dramatically different form from the last—Graham Saunders, the author of two books on Kane, describes her as the “David Bowie of theatre.” Her most tender work is Crave (1998). Initially she presented the play under the pseudonym Marie Kelvedon (the surname a reference to the village in Essex where she grew up), in a bid to escape Blasted’s shadow. By the time it opened to widespread acclaim at Edinburgh, the author’s true identity was known. Littered with references to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land, Crave has no discernible characters and minimal stage directions. Four fragmented voices referred to only as A, B, M and C share their desires, memories of loss and fears for the future. The voices could be four distinct characters or the split personalities of one. Kane revealed later that the initials stood for Abuser, Boy, Mother and Child.

As with Cleansed, Crave is an exploration of love’s power to complete and to annihilate the self. The dialogue is tightly arranged: each voice follows its own line but harmonises at climactic moments to create an ode to tormented love. The centrepiece is a lyrical monologue about a romantic idyll. “I want to play hide-and-seek and give you my clothes and tell you I like your shoes and sit on the step while you take a bath and massage your neck and kiss your feet.” In her most masterful piece of writing, she moves from gentleness through angst and finally to despair. “I wanted to find out how good a poet I could be while still writing something dramatic,” Kane said at the time.

Her final play, 4:48 Psychosis (2000), opened a year and a half after her suicide. It explores a mental breakdown through a fragmented authorial voice, and has inevitably been read as a direct expression of the author’s personal anguish. The play shows a loss of faith in family and God: “...fuck my father for fucking up my life for good and fuck my mother for not leaving him, but most of all, fuck you God for making me love a person who does not exist.”

Kane’s plays challenge our illusion of being protected against the world’s ills—shaking audiences out of their political apathy. Her work explores what drives people to carry out violence on others, and themselves. It is full of scenes that plague the mind long after you have left the theatre, but she was sanguine about the reaction of her audience. “If a play is good,” she said, “it breathes its own air and has a life and voice of its own. What you take that voice to be saying is no concern of mine. It is what it is. Take it or leave it.” Yet in a world in which images of atrocity invade our living rooms every day, her work makes sense of the seemingly endless cycle of human violence. She depicted atrocity with both philosophical detachment and sardonic wit. Fittingly, at her memorial service her friend Harold Pinter described her as a true “theatre poet.”