Pedophilia (possibly incestuous), rape (vaginal and anal), cannibalism: just your typical Sunday afternoon at the theatre. At least it was for those of us in the audience at Performance Works yesterday, there to take in Pi Theatre's production of Sarah Kane's Blasted, directed by Richard Wolfe and on through Saturday, April 25th. The play premiered at the Royal Court in London in 1995, where its increasingly horrific catalogue of acts of violence and sexual degradation incensed critics. Never mind that Kane was referencing the very real atrocities then taking place in Bosnia, nor that she was consciously drawing on Greek tragedy--albeit in a way that makes plainly visible all the physical nastiness that in the classical tradition happened off-stage. To upstanding London theatregoers of the time, Kane was being unnecessarily provocative, too "in yer face," to reference the label that, for better or worse, got attached to Kane and several of her fellow upstart UK playwrighting contemporaries.
Now, of course, twenty years after its premiere (and sixteen after Kane's suicide in 1999) the play feels more relevant than ever, what with the various acts of unspeakable brutality we daily witness in the media emanating from Syria, or Iraq, or Kenya, or the Ukraine--not to mention the armed interventions our own governments in the West have undertaken in order to ensure, or so we are told, that such acts don't reach our shores. To that end, a nice touch by Wolfe in this production is having the voice of current UK Prime Minister David Cameron extolling on the radio at various points all that his government has done in the name of defending the integrity of the British Isles against the infidel hordes clawing at the gates. However, to Ian (Michael Kopsa), the male protagonist of Kane's play, such measures are too little and have come too late. A virulently racist, misogynistic and homophobic journalist whose specialty is covering sensational stories involving sex and murder--but who may also be an undercover government operative (he carries a gun)--the fiftyish Ian has taken refuge in a hotel room in the middle of the vile, foul-smelling city (we presume London, but in fact it's Leeds) he has come to loathe--in part because according to him it's now overrun with "Wogs." Joining Ian is Cate (Cherise Clarke), a much younger and extremely quiescent woman who just may be: a) mentally disabled; b) Ian's daughter; c) Ian's former lover; d) all of the above. At any rate, much of the first half of the play concerns Ian's attempts to cajole Cate into having sex with him, and Cate's attempts to fend him off. When rhetorical persuasion fails, Ian simply takes what he has been denied when Cate is unable to defend herself: dry humping her on the floor when she is unconscious as a result of one of her fits and, it is suggested after one of the play's strategic blackouts, raping her when she is out cold during the night.
The relationship between Ian and Cate would quickly descend into caricature were it not for two things. First, Kane, is at pains to show us that her protagonists are much more complex than we might at first credit them to be. Ian's rage at the world comes from a deep vulnerability, a compensatory realization that as an aging white, middle class man whose body is rapidly betraying him (and whose past sins may be catching up with him), all he wants is for someone to love him. For her part, Cate has an inner core of strength, as well as a capacity for cold assessment of the situation when she needs it. She realizes that Ian is pathetic and ridiculous, and announces as much to him; but she also has compassion for him, as she does for humanity in general (there are several references to her taking care of her mother and brother, and she is shown caring for and, after it dies, burying an abandoned baby later in the play). Indeed, it is a mark of Kane's subtlety as a playwright that, almost without us knowing it, and in apparent contradiction of what we are witnessing physically on stage, we end up feeling that there is a real bond--something that indeed approximates love--between these two damaged souls. It helps, in this regard, that the roles are played by actors as talented as Kopsa and Clarke, who in their very demanding emotional and physical interactions over the course of the play effortlessly convey the complex shared history of their characters. In fact, the play ends with a quiet scene between the couple that, precisely because of all the horror that precedes it, is shatteringly tender, and that involves Ian uttering to Cate a simple "thank you."
Except that it's not that simple, and for Ian and us in the audience to feel any measure of grace at play's end we first have to earn it. Which is where the second, and primarily structural, innovation of Kane's writing comes in. She shows us that the domestic violence between Ian and Cate inside their hotel room is parallel to, and in fact an extension of, the military violence outside by having the latter literally intrude on the former. I am referring here to the appearance of the third character in the play, the Soldier (Raresh DiMofte), whose specific allegiance (apart from that he shows to the memory of his slaughtered girlfriend) is never identified, just as the factional conflict that mysteriously creeps up on Ian and Cate remains primarily allegorical. The Soldier is Ian's shadow self, the abjected other whose return is designed to remind Ian--and us--that, in direct antithesis to the compassion represented by Cate (who, crucially, during the scenes between the two men is locked in the bathroom), perhaps what most marks us as human is that we are capable of both imagining and doing just about anything. It's a brutal truth that is almost impossible to confront--which perhaps explains why, after he sodomizes him, the Soldier chews out Ian's eyes. As I said, Kane knew her Greek tragedy.
This is the second staging of Blasted that I have seen, the first being the celebrated Soho Rep run in New York in 2008 that starred the amazing Reed Birney and Marin Ireland. I have deliberately avoided comparing the two, as I wanted to judge Wolfe's production on its own terms. To that end, my first props go to the design team (led by the ubiquitous and super-talented Drew Facey--see my previous review of Indian Arm); not only have they created a more than credibly generic hotel room, but they manage to blow it up in a believable fashion. That I have spent more time in this review than in my previous one (which you can read here) contemplating the sophistication of Kane's script speaks to Wolfe's attentive care to its layered complexity. I do think the pacing in the second half flags a bit--the blackouts that mark the space between Ian's successive "states of emergency" could come more quickly (though I do understand that there are some basic technical encumbrances that are also being dealt with here). Finally, there is the question of nudity. Given what happens in the play, a degree of it is more or less to be expected. And yet, whereas we see Clarke full frontally in a longish scene where, following Ian's night-time sexual assault, she gets out of bed and traumatically stumbles into her clothes, we only ever see Kopsa's backside--despite ample opportunity, given what happens to him, to display more (and this goes for DiMofte as well). Not that I'm making an argument for upping the titillation quotient. And I have no idea whether this was a primarily directorial or an actorly decision. In the absence of that information, however, the decision does seem to replicate some familiar tropes of gendered gratuity--tropes that Kane's play, I would argue, expressly critiques.