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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.