Malthouse brings Sarah Kane's controversial play back for a new generation
Note: This review discusses domestic violence and sexual assault. If you or someone you know is impacted by sexual assault or domestic violence, call 1800RESPECT or visit 1800RESPECT.org.au.
Blasted was savaged by critics when it was first seen at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1995. There were pompous eye rolls about its obviousness, letters of gratuitous shock at its confrontational violence that “knew no bounds of decency” and claims of “naïve tosh” (later recanted by the critic). The Daily Mail even claimed it was a “disgusting feast of filth”. It, of course, sold out and is now regarded as magnificent. It’s also the first of the five plays by Sarah Kane, who died by suicide at 28 and has become known as a great playwright who never had the chance to be as great as she might’ve been.
Despite Kane’s popularity among theatre makers, Malthouse’s is the first mainstage production of the work seen in Melbourne.
Ian (David Woods) and Cate (Eloise Mignon) are in a fancy city hotel room in Leeds. He’s much older than her and his racist and homophobic language is less revolting than his treatment of Cate. She’s excited to be in a hotel and knows Ian well enough to say that she doesn’t want sex, this time. There’s not a moment when there’s hope that encounter isn’t going to end in rape. What is more surprising is the appearance of an armed soldier (Fayssal Bazzi) because a war has erupted outside. It’s best not to think too hard about the logic and consistency of the external world.
What starts as a semi-predictable naturalistic exploration of vile masculinity and power transforms into a war story – Ian’s a journalist who tells the soldier that no one wants to hear these stories – and becomes a dystopian world so unthinkable that it’s easy to guess how the Chekhovian gun is going to be used. Kane broke the storytelling rules before she knew what she was breaking.
The design (Marg Horwell, set and costume, and Paul Jackson, lighting) follows the script in ways a small-stage production could never hope for. At first, its generic-bland hotel looks like a box-in-a-box story as the first scene hints of a hotel-room domestic drama. But the first short blackout tells more than we could ever see on stage. And when the hotel is bombed, the room is flung into a world that stops playing by the rules.
It’s a script born of outrage. Kane saw the link between domestic sexual violence and mass rape in war. She saw her society accepting, or ignoring, too many horrendous flaws in humanity. She wrote a work that makes the violence and toxic truth so obvious that it would be impossible to leave the theatre and not have the same understanding.
The violence is unrelenting, from Ian’s ignoring of Cate’s wishes to their attempts to survive in a hell where blood has quickly become an easy and cheap cost for hope.
Anne-Louise Sarks' direction is as unrelenting as the script; she doesn’t give the audience time to do anything but watch. Even the short blackouts are filled with so much anticipation that there’s no space to think beyond the immediate.
It’s clearly on our stage now because we haven’t improved as a society, and it’s now a story that belongs as much on an Australian stage as on any other.
But 20-odd years later, we know about the violence depicted in Blasted. We read, hear and see it every day in our attachments to screens; in our fictions and realities.
It doesn’t shock anymore. We can snigger and joke in the foyer about what to do with a dead baby.
No, that’s wrong. The violence in itself is still shocking but I wasn’t shocked by it being on stage; I wasn’t even surprised that I wasn’t shocked.
Maybe the power of this production is that while it tries to find humanity in hell – even Ian’s karmic revenge isn’t welcomed – its audience can wonder why we can still watch the unacceptable knowing that it is the truth of our world.