Blasted is a brutal play. The violence on stage will cause distress and you will find yourself looking away at different moments. Malthouse Theatre takes pains to adequately warn its patrons. The question could be asked; why put such terror on stage? What exactly motivated playwright Sarah Kane to write this play at the end of the last century? Does the play deserve its status as a contemporary classic?
The answer is a resounding yes! This play has a message, and a moral purpose and ignoring its challenging themes would be dangerous. It is important to keep challenging theatre audiences and keep confronting them with disturbing sides of the human condition. Kane’s play takes us into the desperate recesses of a mind, a mind that is suffering because of an extreme set of circumstances. Blasted shocked and annoyed the London theatre world back in 1995 when it was produced at the Royal Court Theatre. Most critics hated it, but now, with the benefit of hindsight, it is recognized as a bold and brilliant piece of work by most it seems.
The play takes place in an expensive hotel room in Leeds. Ian (David Woods), is a menacing tabloid journalist. He carries a gun tucked neatly into a holder strapped to his torso. He is edging for a night of distraction and fun with his former girlfriend Cate (Eloise Mignon). The tension in this first scene in the hotel room is unceasing. Both actors play two characters who are excited by each other yet at the same time indulge in cruel games. Ian is aggressive and treats Cate in the most demeaning of ways. He spouts racist and homophobic comments. His menacing nature and movement is like a gigantic praying mantis. However, Ian is not praying; he is paranoid, waiting to strike, eager to use and abuse Cate.
A mortar bomb strikes, a soldier appears. Cate has disappeared. We realise that the place is ripped apart by a war. We judged Ian as brutal, but this new comer to the story – a soldier in full army uniform (Fayssal Bazzi) – is devastatingly inhumane. His thoughts and actions fall contrary to everything we deem human. The play descends into further savagery; an array of violent acts follow. The play comes to its end. It is like Golding’s Lord of the Flies but with an X-rating. It delves into man’s capacity to commit evil and asks – why?
The director (Anne-Louise Sarks) and her cast convey all the terror the play demands. Sarks explains that the play’s fundamental notion is that it is ‘diseased masculinity’ that causes both domestic personal violence as well as the full-scale violence of war we view around the world. Kane asks her audiences to sit with this notion, that there is a connection between both settings. She made the connection by setting up the domestic relationship between Cate and Ian in scene one and follows this with the broader world, with the realm of war.
The direction is simple and perfect. Slow moving, both in dialogue and blocking then this is abruptly interrupted by chaotic and frantic movement. The direction offers us the idea that even out of all the terror, humanity can prevail. We are left with a smidgen of hope at the play’s end. Sarks is not satisfied at revealing the characters as one dimensional, or driven by one driving force. She finds depth between the lines; she finds many sides to the three clearly drawn characters. They can be brutal and vulnerable, cruel and wanting. Sarks does not miss the moral purpose that the lines seem to want to produce.
The set Marg Horwell is an outstanding feature of this production. As the play descends into destruction and death, the set mirrors this in a bold and technically intriguing away. Rain is heard at the end of each of the scenes (a feature of the script). This rain soundscape is used to great effect. Close-up of objects and the characters’ faces come and go on a screen that is placed atop of the stage. This cinematography (Sky Davies) is a great complement to the action, a sort of momentary respite from the terror. The projections portray the beauty of these objects and faces as the images are almost dreamy and shot in a romantic way. It is an interesting juxtaposition.
The performances from all three actors is captivating. To go so deeply into the minds of such troubled characters is a massive feat. The actors show technical acting skills in performing such depraved acts as they do. They find emotional depth. They are agile and like hunters, stalking the stage with a misguided and deranged sense of purpose.
Kane was a first-time playwright when she created Blasted. Her powers of perception and her characters show the fragility of humankind. It is not a pleasant night out at the theatre, but it is recommended viewing.