Love as horror in this savagely beautiful revival of a play by the tragic Sarah Kane
The dear old National Theatre – lest we forget, an institution fairly recently run by Trevor Nunn – hasn’t been afraid to wallop the shit out of its audiences lately. Last year ended with ‘Evening at the Talk House’ and ‘Here We Go’ – two difficult shows that prompted audience walkouts and bleating from some sectors of the press that new NT boss Rufus Norris had lost his marbles.
I imagine the same commentators will not be very happy with ‘Cleansed’, the NT’s first ever production of a play by Sarah Kane, the violent experimental playwright whose life and death rocked the theatre establishment in the ‘90s (she took her own life aged 28).
'Cleansed', first performed in 1998, is here directed by the great auteur Katie Mitchell and had in fact already prompted hysterical newspaper reports pre-press night due to the volumes of audience members fainting during its torture scenes… which effectively make up the entire play.
I didn’t faint, though I can see why you might. It’s not so much because Mitchell’s remarkable production plumbs extremes of violence – though it does – more that it’s totally relentless. From the moment Michelle Terry’s evening dress-wearing Grace stumbles dazedly into the bizarre, horrifying institute presided over by Tom Mothersdale’s suave Tinker we’re disorientated and never given the chance to recover.
Grace witnesses and becomes drawn into a twitching, relentless tapestry of darkness: a gay couple violently tortured into betraying each other’s love; a vulnerable young man is savagely emasculated; a scantily-clad woman dances in a booth for the grim delight of Tinker, with whom she seems to have some sort of relationship. Grace is apparently on a quest to find her brother, though whether he is alive or dead or real – whether any of this is real – is open to debate, though it ends in startng body horror.
Thanks to superlative movement director Joseph Alford this all transpires in a relentless blur of movement that often feels as close to modern dance as theatre, torturers and victims in constant motion as sinister masked figures lug equipment and bodies around, scenes collapsing into each other each time Tinker presses a klaxon. And it’s constantly soundtracked by a whirring, pulsating score from Paul Clark, spiked with a handful of mangled pop songs that play out at the really upsetting bits.
It is a vision of love pushed to surreal, awful, abstract extremes, beyond romance or lust, on to something knawing and primal. There is no opportunity to pause or get your bearings, or even much of a plot to cling on to, just a strangely beautiful vortex of horror.
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As yet another form of torture is wheeled onto the stage on a gurney or trolley I realised that this play was oddly similar to a 1980's television magic show. Each new act of violence was served up to the audience as if a magician was revealing them from under a sheet, later on bunches of silk flowers even popped up out of the stage. The relentlessness and repetition of violent acts had the same pattern and emotional depth as a firework display.
As I walked out one of the front of house staff asked me if I was feeling sick or faint. I explained that the only thing I was struggling with was the difficulty in finding words to explain how awful the play was. For a moment I thought about not using words and just demonstrating to her how I felt in a series of repetitive violent acts without narrative, or emotional connection, hung together with bursts of music. A perfect solution, I offered her my seat.
"Cleansed" at the National Theatre is (I am quite certain) the worst theatrical work I have seen in my life. This realization brings great sadness to me since I now am concerned that I have reached the bottom of my lifetime's theatrical experiences yet I still (hopefully) have many years left to live. Hopefully I will live long enough to see an even worse play, but, I sense that the odds are against me.
There is no discernible plot, instead there is much gratuitous sex and violence. The playwright apparently feels that hard hitting visual and audio thrusts can make up for the lack of direction, coherence and dramatical substance. The substantial and oft-featured frontal nudity at least helps one keep awake, otherwise the scenes of violence just repeat endlessly and drone on and on. Having said that, I nonetheless believe that I did doze off for a few minutes.
Another weakness of this play is the dialogue, or the lack thereof. The play is highly dependent on delivering whatever message it is trying to communicate primarily by the aforementioned actions on stage rather than through words. I wouldn't be surprised if the entire script (without stage direction that is) could be read aloud in a tiny handful of minutes.
The acting may or may not be good, hard to tell. The actors have been handed one-dimensional roles that do not portend to portray any sort of range of human emotions.
I believe that this play intentionally lacks an interval in order to make it that much more difficult for playgoers to walk out.
However, I believe that this play will be memorable for me. Though one, with the passage of time, is likely to forget a poor restaurant meal, one is likely to remember for many years a restaurateur's success in delivering a bout of food poisoning. By analogy, I am highly likely to recall this play for a long time.