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A Graphic New Play Is Making Squares Faint in the Aisles

Sarah's Kane's 'Cleansed' features torture, butt-fucking, and cutting off tongues—but the fainting people say more about theater-goers than about the text.
Hannah Ewens
London, GB

Shock horror! Revolting scenes! A disgusting feast of filth for the LOONY left! These are just a few words from the mouths of delighted publications reacting to stagings of Sarah Kane's first play Blasted. The play—first performed in 1995—included scenes of rape, bombing, suicide, masturbation, and someone eating a dead baby. As the years passed and Kane's auteurship developed, critics began to regret their impulsive and unrestrained reaction to her work and hailed her instead as a unique voice. Now, just over 20 years after that violent response to her work on its opening night, the National Theater in London is staging Kane's play Cleansed. As VICE wrote last month, this commitment can be seen as her ultimate acceptance into the British theater canon. Similar in style and NSFW content to Blasted, Cleansed is a political but abstract and experimental play about a man called Tinker who keeps people in a prison-like world for both body and mind. Each character has a warped ideal of love and goes his or her own way to acquire that affection.


The reaction to Cleansed has eerily mirrored Blasted's opening night. The Daily Mail's review by Quentin Letts gave it one star, saying that a couple hurried out of the theater, laughing that it was "the worst thing we've been to in years." As papers reported Wednesday, 40-ish theater-goers had walked out in the first six preview shows. If that weren't enough, five people have required medical attention after passing out. One blogger who had seen the show described the walkouts as "inevitable" and said she didn't even know what the production was about, even after watching the whole thing.

Let's consider this for a moment. If you've paid £35 [$50] to see a Kane play, you're aware of what you're strapping yourself in for. You're not expecting fat Russians sitting around drinking vodka or a well-to-do young woman choosing a life-partner between three unlikely suitors, with a few laughs along the way. In case the playwright's name means nothing to you, on the National Theater flyer and website it warns: "Contains graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence." If audience members are passing out, slumping in their padded seats, ushers shining their lights in faces, medics rushing through the aisle, then they should have done their research.

I'm not trying to be hard, but I've never passed out at a play, or film, or video game. I'm just the product of a demographic that grew up watching A Serbian Film stony-faced eating Haribo gummy bears at a sleepover and being passed a video of a horse fucking a woman on an iPhone screen in a classroom. The unwritten rules of art criticism state that salaciousness without a purpose or statement is unnecessary and constitutes a poor piece of work. And knowing the script and Kane's work, I doubt that's the case here. But in an effort to understand the response, I went along Wednesday night to see if I could stomach the squalid degradation.


As I sat down, the two girls next to me were talking about why they'd come. One had seen that it made people faint in the Daily Mail, so she had to get them both tickets immediately to see what the fuss was about. If the other woman hadn't come with her, she'd have come alone, she says. It's reminiscent of the way people had gone to Blasted after the first reviews were out, specifically to be offended, half-ready to walk out. That became the Sarah Kane experience. Whatever the artistic intention, it was overshadowed already by the challenge now proposed to the public.

The play starts. Within the first couple of minutes, Tinker, the doctor-cum-patriarchal overlord injects a young man named Graham in the eye with a lethal dose of heroin. This is a grim hospital-part-torture chamber, a literal translation of the micro-society Kane depicted. Immediately it's clear that, unlike the original production that was abstract and semi-stylized, director Katie Mitchell has gone for the visceral approach.

In this pursuit of love, everyone gets their junk out. Knobs are flopping out at every opportunity; Tinker masturbates to a dancing woman in a cell whom he later sleeps with, gay sex is simulated between lovers Carl and Rod, Grace has hetero sex with someone, people are humiliated by stripping naked frequently. At the beginning of play, once her brother Graham has been killed, Grace demands she get his clothes back. Tinker brings in a man wearing her brother's clothes. She orders the man to take them off, she strips completely naked and puts his suit and boxers half on in an effort to be closer to Graham and remains tits-out for the entire performance.

Actors being naked on stage is nothing new. Neither is simulating sex with very flaccid penises, so why the fuss? Likely because this exploration of love and sex happens while Tinker and his masked cronies torture everyone who is down there—seemingly without logic. For being gay, Carl gets a rod up his ass—admittedly that's a squeamish moment—and his hands and feet chiseled down by a machine. There's a sex change. There's a knife or pen that gets stabbed in a neck. None of this is remotely shocking if you've seen a grindcore film, if you've seen Saw or Hostel or even have read something slightly gory. These theatrical stunts are nothing if you have a fraction of imagination.

Katie Mitchell's production leaves the impression of an endless nightmare. Essentially, it's an interesting and valid interpretation of Cleansed that succeeds in being a less graphic Hostel for the stage. But the fainting audience members? The walking out? Nothing warranted it. It simply proves that we haven't evolved in 20 years. The demographic going to the theater is still the same as it was, cemented in upper-middle class bias with cuts to arts funding and fewer cheap tickets for young people floating around. The only ones likely to need medical help after a simulated stab to the neck or a gay sex scene are those old enough or entrenched enough in high culture to be unaccustomed to it. Last of all, the media response—"Is this the most shocking play ever staged?"; "The new National Theater play that is so gruesome it's making the audience FAINT"—is as tediously sensationalist as it was at the time, ensuring that people will flock to their seats expecting to be revolted. Everyone wants to engage in the theater of outrage. Cleansed is Blasted full-circle.

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