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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

at the Lyric Hammersmith


  Danny Webb and Aidan Kelly/ Ph: Simon Kane

The story of the 1995 opening of Sarah Kane’s explosive debut play is enshrined in theatre history: the shock, the opprobrium, the accusations from national critics that she was “the naughtiest girl in the class” or indulging in a “feast of filth.” It was, for this brilliant young writer, quite an entrance, and one that, tragically, preceded an exit that has also become part of British dramatic mythology – when Kane committed suicide at the age of just 28.
Since then, there has been a widespread critical volte-face on the merits of Blasted, and it has become difficult to consider Kane’s work without placing it within the context of her life and death. But there’s been a handful of fascinating opportunities to do so, in relation to the piece that began her short but seminal career as well as a 2001 main-house revival at the Royal Court – the theatre where Blasted began life in the small upstairs space – there have been productions from German theatre-maker Thomas Ostermeier (2006); from Graeae, the disabled-led company (2007); and by innovators 19;29 [correct], who offered a site-specific staging in a guestroom at the Queens Hotel in Leeds (2008). Now Sean Holmes, who was a friend of the playwright, directs a major new production of pitch-black brilliance that, amid its bilious wit, bleeds pain. 
Such is the reputation of the piece that few will need warning about its deeply disturbing content: the rapes, the sucked-out eyeballs, the devouring of a dead baby. That the play is so horrifyingly riveting – even when these appalling events, though no less awful to witness, no longer come as a surprise – is testament to the power and craft of Kane’s writing.
Ian (Danny Webb), a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking journalist, brings a vulnerable young woman, Cate (Lydia Wilson), to a plush, anonymous Leeds hotel with the intention of having sex with her. Ian’s mouth is as foul as an overflowing ashtray, and his misogyny and racism suggest his mind is no less repellant. Webb, though, brings a compelling quality of pitiable desperation to the character. He sweats, he blusters, there’s a wheedling tone to his efforts to get Cate into bed, and a fearfulness underlies his every toxic denigration of “lesbos,” “wogs” and “conkers.” Wilson’s Cate, meanwhile, is surprisingly self-possessed, despite the stammer and fainting fits that afflict her when she’s distressed. But Ian, humiliated and frustrated, can, and does, physically overpower and violate her. He is indeed, as she terms him, “a nightmare" – one from which even he himself longs to wake.
But in the wake of the domestic horror comes much worse when, in a moment of thrilling theatrical audacity, Kane brings an armed and psychologically unstable Soldier (Aidan Kelly) crashing through the hotel-room door, before blowing the entire scene sky high when a bomb rips through the building. Paule Constable’s stunning lighting design picks out the action in searing shafts that lacerate the darkness; Paul Wills’ glossy set disintegrates, leaving behind the bare cruciform struts of the devastated structure. The Soldier spits out tales of barely imaginable atrocity and, in a turn of phrase that has a poignantly incongruous romanticism, declares himself “dying to make love.” Webb, his flesh the colour of half-cooked meat, is bludgeoned and torn by suffering. In the dripping maw of his desolation, he crawls beneath the arm of the dead Soldier who raped and tortured him in search of comfort, and cuddles the baby’s corpse even as he tries to eat it. Cate, meanwhile, hardens and survives. The future she faces is terrifying, but Kane allows us a glimmer, at least, of hope.
The playwright was responding, originally, to conflict in the former Yugoslavia; but her vision of war – and her implication that it exists on the same continuum as the smaller acts of violence occurring behind closed doors – are enduringly shattering. Holmes handles it unflinchingly, and the performances are disconcertingly good, with Webb, particularly in the play’s later sequences, nothing short of extraordinary. There are echoes here of classical tragedy, of Bond and Barker, Beckett and Shakespeare. But Kane’s voice has its own blistering potency; and this remains a truly remarkable play.

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