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Nineteen years on, Sarah’s Kane era-defining play feels as urgent as ever.
BY JOSH JINRUANG
It is tempting, if not downright instinctive, to talk about a cultural object mainly in terms of the surrounded spectacle which it spawned. Like many historical figures whose real, concrete existence have become inseparably shrouded in oftentimes politicised myths, a piece of text can easily sink under the weight of responses it generated: its content and author’s voices left unheard, drowned out by the popular and academic reception, which ironically ensures its afterlife while at the same time represses the original message.
First opened in the hungover post-holidays month of January 1995, Sarah Kane’s Blasted was a theatre equivalent of a critically divisive blockbuster with box-office success. Its plot, which begins with a seduction of an initially passive, stuttering, twenty-something Cate by a racist, homophobic, older tabloid journalist Ian in an expensive Leeds hotel room, takes a sharp narrative turn with an arrival of an angry, foreign, armed Soldier from an unnamed war that has apparently been going on outside. The room’s subsequent destruction by mortar bombing then dissolves these artificial divides – private v. public, domestic v. foreign, us v. them – entirely; the war seen only through media representation has finally come home at last.
Indeed, Kane’s idea arrived spontaneously after seeing a report on the Bosnian war during a process of writing a play about sexual abuse: ‘what could possibly be the connection between a common rape in a Leeds hotel room and what’s happening in Bosnia?… the seeds of full-scale war can always be found in peace-time civilization’. This resulted in Blasted, which explored the issue of rape and wartime atrocities in relation to the crisis of masculinity, ethnic domination, and retributive justice, containing stark scenes of violence including rape, homosexuality, ocular mutilation, defecation and attempted cannibalism.
The critics of the day were, of course, scandalised. ‘Disgusting feast of filth’, said the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker. Slightly more qualifying in his response, Michael Billington stated that the play lacked a ‘sense of external reality’. On the other hand, many of the day’s theatre luminaries such as Edward Bond, Caryl Churchill, Harold Pinter and David Greig expressed their support for the play. The initial knee-jerk reaction eventually gave way to close analysis, and Blasted is now considered as a rejuvenating milestone in the history of British theatre.
Revolutionary in its disruptive form as well as confrontational content, Blasted typified the in-yer-face theatrical sensibility, practitioners of which also included the likes of Mark Ravenhill, Jez Butterworth, and Anthony Neilson. Their plays, while born out of great moral concerns, are never moralistic, aiming to describe reality and leave the duty of judgement to the audience. Considering the ideological failure of the Cold War symbolised by the destruction of the Berlin Wall in 1990, this is perhaps not surprising.
But, is the play still relevant today? While inspired by the specific context, namely the Bosnian War, the play, like all great art, aims to illustrate the universal through the particular. Violence, presented in all its naked, repulsive, and de-glamourised glory, creates a liminal space within the theatre by imposing on the audience these acts of unthinkable transgression. The result is that of confusing mayhem, just like war itself, where all the rules of civilised society break down betrayed by their own fragility and revealed as ephemeral constructs. The characters’ traumatic plights are not performed on the stage so much as they are lived through in full view, allowing us to experience their humanity as well as discover our own.
Kane demonstrates deep psychological understanding of all the three characters. Most impressively, she defies the conventional political narrative of the oppressor/victim binary, showing that most people are both; Ian and the Soldier are not so much villains as creatures acting out against their lack of power, whether real of perceived. Just like hope lying at the bottom of Pandora’s Box however, the play is ultimately humanistic, showing the potential for transformation even after a series of brutal trauma. If there’s one thing to take from the play, perhaps this is it.