Count backwards from 10…9…9…7…7…5…4…life is sweet….this is what life’s about
After this Graham is out. He’s just received a fatal drug overdose, having begged for it. Cleansed then continues for about an hour and a half presenting scene after scene after scene of graphic gratuitous violence and sex and violent sex.
Sarah Kane’s ‘In Yer Face’ Cleansed is currently being presented at the National Theatre as part of Artistic Director Rufus Norris’ drive to bring plays by female playwrights and productions by female directors to the repertoire. It’s as tough, confronting and visceral night in the theatre as can be imagined.
Whilst watching the play, the audience is mostly silent. There is the occasional sympathetic groan issued while watching a particularly painful scene, the odd inappropriate laugh at the callous use of sex, but mostly… there is the silence.
This is in stark contrast with the appreciative applause which erupts at the end of what is undoubtedly a theatrically adept performance, but many of the audience seemed to be still processing their reactions while leaving the auditorium. Silently.
Prolific discussion may follow as everyone who sees this play likely will have a strong opinion about it and reaction to it.
Kane was once tagged as the enfant terrible of playwrights. She said:
there isn’t anything you can’t represent on stage. If you are saying you can’t represent something, you are saying you can’t talk about it, you are denying its existence…
The narrative in this play is elusive. Amid the shocking acts depicted on stage, the relationship to reality seems tenuous. There is the possibility that the events seen are the product of a drug affected mind. It is never clear precisely why what happens happens.
Kane stated that the intention of her works was to challenge the conventions of stage realism – andCleansed certainly achieves that objective. In ways similar to her other works, Kane here blasts open conventions about the visual elements of theatre and traditional notions of character and the use of character in drama.
Amongst the run of seemingly disconnected violence, the play does explore aspects of love and loyalty. An examination of self also seems a lucid theme.
The action, such as it is, appears set in the foyer of an abandoned hospital; an air of appropriate medical procedures taking place partly dissembles, and disguising, the horrific and quite startling acts of violence which occur. Fear of the unknown adds greatly to the on-going sense of menace and the appearance of surgical bed and trolleys heightens that fear. With its many entrances, the set works well as a place where the unexpected can and does happen. Director Katie Mitchell’s overall concept allows for a layering of effect with lights (Jack Knowles) and, particularly, sound (Melanie Wilson) that supports and emphasises the many layers within the play.
Firstly, there is the relationship between Graham (Graham Butler) and his sister, Grace (Michelle Terry) who comes looking for him and becomes herself caught up in violence. Secondly, there is a homosexual couple (Peter Hobday‘s Carl and George Taylor’s Rod) embroiled in an experiment of trust and loyalty, with spectacularly violent penalty points. A lad with literacy problems (Matthew Tennyson as Robin) attaches himself to a Woman. Finally, there is a megalomaniac “doctor” who runs the institution supported by an army of faceless minions. (He later admits that he is, in fact, not a doctor). In essence, nothing is as it first appears and all is tortured, literally and metaphorically.
Each element of this production is well realized. Mitchell and set designer Alex Eales have contrived a complex fabric which provides the scaffolding on which it is possible for the actors to build their notion of reality.
The over-reaching feel of the play is surreal: movement is highly choreographed and overtly stylized, often slipping into slow motion or speeding up at the sound of a buzzer. At times, the faceless black figures appear in funereal aspect, carrying open umbrellas and bouquets of lilies. Whimsically, drifts of daffodils flower in the cracks in the floor. Intertwined with these quite attractive images is the harsh, hyper-reality of the sickening violence and action.
Above all, there is a constant use of many different buzzers – heralding change. Harsh electronic sounds punctuate and shatter the background.
Mitchell has gathered and prepared a troupe of seven actors who are all courageous in performance. Cleansed is a true ensemble piece and all give strongly fine-tuned performances given the nebulous nature of script and narrative. Each of the cast has a main character, but they often double as part of the faceless army. The actors carry the audience along in this abstract exploration of real issues.
Of particular note are the outstanding performances of Terry as Grace, Tom Mothersdale as ‘Doctor’ Tinker and Butler as Graham. There is more action than dialogue and the physicality of these three actors in particular is exceptionally effective. Natalie Klamar, playing The Woman (caught on a dancer’s podium and made to perform for Tinker)gives a strong performance.
This production is a bold, shamelessly aggressive and confrontational one. Mitchell is making a bold statement about how far she is prepared to go to create challenging and thought-provoking theatre. The abstract pictures created are well defined and evocative; the realistic nature of the violence and voyeuristic sex ensures that the images will be long with you, perhaps permanently.
But the absence of anything concrete in characterization and narrative makes it difficult to relate in any meaningful way to the production. This is not a play that one learns from or thinks about. It is a volcanic eruption of gore, pain and carnality unlike anything seen recently on any National Theatre stage. This is a theatrical experience, not a play in the traditional sense.
And, looked at that way, as something unexpected, massively confusing and shocking, but with an underlying sense questioning love, self-worth and commitment, this is a success. Disturbing, frightening, sickening, confusing, maybe. But a success.