Thursday, February 15, 2007

Theatre Review : Blasted by Sarah Kane - Graeae Theatre Company - Soho Theatre (dir Jenny Seeley 1/2/07)

"Blasted" is a play about vulnerability - the vulnerable Cate is abused and raped by Ian, who is in turn sodomised and blinded by Soldier, who is, emotionally, through what he has experienced, the most scarred and vulnerable of them all. Therefore, to enact the play with a part able-bodied, part-disabled cast made compelling sense as new layers of vulnerability were brought to bear on all the characters.

There is little doubt that Cate (Jennifer-Jay Ellison) is vulnerable on many levels - physically, mentally and emotionally - and totally at the mercy of Ian, whose casual racism and sexual predation mark him out as an exceptionally unsympathetic character. Yet, when the presence of a gun means that the power-balance is altered and Ian is at the mercy of the soldier, it is a mark of the subtlety of Sarah Kane's writing that Ian (Gerard McDermott) becomes sympathetic for the first time in the play.

When I saw a German production of Blasted last year (, the soldier was played by Thomas Thieme - a slow-moving giant of a man, totally overpowering in his physicality. In this production, the Soldier is played by David Toole - an amputee who has lost both his legs, moving with remarkable agility across the stage on his hands. His is a baleful, unsettling presence without the same physical threat but somehow tapping into the fear of the malign dwarf in European folk literature from Alberich in the Ring to Rumpelstiltskin. It is an extraordinary performance of power, emotion and versatility.

Part of the ethos of Graeae Theatre Company is equal access for all. Therefore it is consistent that they choose to speak all stage directions, and that the performance is simultaneously projected on the backdrop with subtitles and signs. However, the speaking of stage directions detracts from the raw physicality of Kane's text. There can be no comparison between the horrifying sight of the soldier sucking out Ian's eyes and slowly crunching them between his teeth, and a spoken line saying simply that the soldier sucks out Ian's eyes and eats them. The physical act is one of horror, the spoken description could almost be a cause for a nervous laugh in the audience.

And that, in the end, was where this brave and imaginative production fell down. Too much of the physical horror of Kane's descent into hell was spoken, not enough was enacted. Ian's final, redemptive "Thank you" is completely adrift in a sea of description. On the other hand, Kane's marginal poetry - such as the descriptions of rain changing through the seasons - is usually lost on stage but brought to the fore in this performance. No matter how it is presented, there can be no doubt that Blasted is still an extraordinarily powerful piece of theatre, and this production successfully opens up new avenues for exploration.

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