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'The simple fact of pain'

An appreciation of Sarah Kane's plays by Nick Bird

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 deeply affecting.

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.



January 2005


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