Until sixteen months ago Sarah
Kane had entered my consciousness exactly twice. Once when her first play,
Blasted, was performed in London in 1995. I remember reading in the Guardian
that it was very controversial. The Daily Mail, with its characteristic
appreciation of challenging art, called it a “disgusting feast of filth.” As far
as I can recall, the next time I read about Sarah Kane was a report of her
death, aged 28, in 1999. She committed suicide in hospital, where she was being
treated following a previous attempt days earlier.
Cut to me in Edinburgh in August
2003. Out of all the plays in the Fringe programme, my friend had chosen Kane’s
Cleansed as a promising example of modern theatre and we duly took our
seats in a typically claustrophobic Fringe venue. I can still remember walking
out into the Edinburgh sun an hour later feeling drained and shocked by the
ferocity of the language and performance. However, it was my first acquaintance
with Kane’s work, which I have come to regard as some of the most exceptional
theatre I have ever seen.
These plays are not easy viewing.
In his introduction to Kane’s complete plays (Methuen, 2001) David Greig calls
Cleansed “a punishing theatrical experience.” She dealt with themes of
love, abuse and pain, and crucially the fragmentation of the self. The language
is frequently sparse and bluntly honest, although sometimes laced with a bitter
humour. By turns poetic, raging, passionate and despairing, I find the writing
From the outset Kane challenged
the audience’s expectations and the traditions of British theatre. Blasted,
misunderstood and giving her the kind of notoriety she never sought, begins
innocently enough with a couple in a hotel room in Leeds. Yet into this setting
a soldier is introduced and by scene three we learn that the hotel has been hit
by a mortar bomb. The characters face devastation as Kane draws a parallel
between violence in a relationship and the violence of war.
Over the course of her five plays
Kane gradually dismantled our notions of what a play looks like and in her
earlier work presented directors and actors with the daunting task of turning
her stark, violent imagery into theatre. This is particularly true of
Cleansed where the characters are submitted to unbearable torments to test
the endurance and essence of love.
By her last two plays Kane had
begun to dispense with any conventional narrative. In Crave the
characters are simply listed as C, M, B and A. There are no stage directions. We
see four people but are we really listening to different fragments of one life?
The effect of the characters speaking to and across each other is almost
hypnotic as we try to piece together a sense of what is being described.
Confusing yet beguiling, like all Kane’s work it repays rereading and indeed
re-watching if you are lucky enough to live near a theatre which will put on
more provocative material.
Kane’s final play, 4.48
Psychosis, is to my mind her finest achievement. It takes her
experimentation with form to its logical conclusion. Narrative is redundant and
the number and gender of actors required are not prescribed. In its first
performance, which was posthumous, it had three actors; when I saw it in
Edinburgh in 2003 there were five. The four female voices, overlapping,
intercutting, brought out the lyrical beauty of the “bewildered fragments” laid
before us. Yet this play examines the bleakest corners of our lives. Its subject
is a suicidal mind, 4.48am being symbolically the darkest moment before dawn and
reportedly when most suicides take place.
The play is a series of
monologues, some written more in the form of a poem, and snatches of
conversation which could be with a doctor. Kane explores anger and frustration
with treatments for depression, whether drugs or therapy:
“– It’s not your fault, that’s
all I ever hear, it’s not your fault, it’s an illness, it’s not your fault, I
know it’s not my fault. You’ve told me that so often I’m beginning to think it
is my fault.”
Shot through with a laconic wit,
some passages are nevertheless intense in their evocation of loss and pain:
“Sometimes I turn around and
catch the smell of you and I cannot go on I cannot fucking go on without
expressing this terrible so fucking awful physical aching fucking longing I
have for you. And I cannot believe that I can feel this for you and you feel
nothing. Do you feel nothing?”
Bereft of love and in love with a
person who doesn’t exist; sick of life, made sick by life; resigned to death but
having no desire for death, claiming at one point to have been dead a long time,
the voice of the play is mesmerising and haunting. To what extent these are
Sarah Kane’s own experiences we cannot know. Having only the slightest insight
into her life I have no intention of making simplistic judgements.
Kane’s work stands as a bold and
exhilarating challenge to audiences and actors alike. Sometimes as brutal as
life and sometimes as beautiful as life, her writing leads us through some
desolate places but we are the better for it. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it is
the shared recognition of the inescapable pain of living that gives us some kind
of fitful catharsis and peace.