Blast off

The critics are falling over themselves to repent their earlier dismissal of Sarah Kane.

Listen: that chomping, choking noise - it's the sound of critics, the infamous "dead white males", eating their words. First time round, in 1995, Sarah Kane's play Blasted met with sneering derision, and not just from the Daily Mail (which did call it a "disgusting piece of filth."). Now they are elbowing each other out the way in unseemly haste to recant, retract, repent.

So what has provoked this diet of words? Well, it is a truth universally acknowledged that untimely death is a smart career move, and the sad story of Sarah Kane, a depressive who hanged herself in 1999, is a case in point. But well before her death there were signs of revisionist anxiety; nowadays she's reached the establishment apogee of being on the A-level syllabus. I missed Blasted first time round; I'm glad I caught it this time, in an intelligent revival at the Lyric Hammersmith.

You can see why it had the hoary hegemony scrambling for their faxes, or whatever they used back then, to wire in their contempt. The play ticks off virtually every obscenity and outrage in the book. Hell, Kane owns the book! On vous propose: anal rape, the sucking out of eyeballs and the notorious dead baby-as-buffet scene.

This is performance as petri dish, in which the bacteria of cruelty and violence in a domestic setting are observed multiplying and gathering strength in a combat zone. In both "halves" of the play, the bed is the torturer's rack. Paul Wills's set is a blandly groomed Leeds hotel room, primped with floral arrangements and boutique-chic designer touches. But this is no bedroom romp. Ian (Danny Webb) is an aging, ailing journalist, who is having a deeply unsettling tryst with a vulnerable young woman - Lydia Wilson's surprisingly resistant Cate - who sucks her thumb, fits and stammers when under pressure. There is considerable coercion in their overnight relations, which leaves Cate bruised and bleeding.

Ian is ostensibly a detached bystander to bloodshed; in an inversion of Proustian squeamishness over the compressed horrors of the morning newspaper, he phones in his copy about a serial killer with brusque and indifferent professionalism: "Caps up ashes at the site comma showed the maniac had stayed to cook a meal caps down new par". But Kane smudges her lines of nquiry, and he is also a guilty participant, not only in terms of his sex life, but also in some unspecified state-sanctioned brutality, for which he has a gun handy. His idiom is one of loathing - "wogs", "lesbos" and "spazzers": this is war as hate-crime.

One might say that it looks like a bomb has gone off in the bedroom the following day, except that shortly afterwards one actually does. A soldier forces his way into the room, at which point a huge explosion rips through the fabric of naturalism and the deluxe ensuite double alike. Bosnia has come to Leeds. The building's giant bones are exposed, cross-beamed like the scaffold and the gallows, and the scene is set for atrocities on a different scale. Kane's writing combines Beckettian restraint with an eye-popping side order of Jacobean imagination: her punishments fit the crime, so Ian, as someone who turns a blind eye, is savagely blinded; he covers his arse, so - you get the picture.

Webb's coup is to make Ian both repugnant and pitiable. When he - and for that matter the soldier - nurse their cigarettes it seems as needy and infantile a suckling as Cate's thumb sucking. Kane leaves such images to burn on to the retina rather than have words attempt a botch job, and there is a certain porousness to her text which is allowed full room to breathe by director Sean Holmes. Ample time is given to the soldier who eats two full Englishes, in silence. A sequence of grim clips, with Webb spiked by a spotlight, conjure Ian's final abasement and his transformation from a seedy abuser to a Lear.

Strangely, what is perhaps most shocking about the show is that it is not necessarily all that shocking. That war implies a mesh of complicity and the suffering of innocents are axioms that are virtually tautologous, which makes the play itself look like an extended tautology. Nonetheless it's a timely point in the wake of Wikileaks: on the play's first outing, all the talk was of the Balkans; now Kane looks like a Cassandra who is pointing the finger at Iraq, Afghanistan, and us.

"Blasted" runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 20 November.

Photo: Prime Images
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The Sad Part Was: this story collection puts the real Bangkok on display

Thai author Prabda Yoon descends into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters.

In Bangkok’s budding literary scene, Prabda Yoon sits at the centre. Born in 1973, he’s the scion of a well-known family (his father Suthichai Sae-Yoon is the co-founder of the Nation newspaper) and is known in Thailand as not only an enfant terrible of letters but as an illustrator, screen-writer and director (his first film, Motel Mist, was shown at European festivals in 2016).

His reputation rests mainly on a collection of short stories published in 2000 entitled in Thai Kwam Na Ja Pen, roughly translated as Probability, and it is from this early collection that most of the stories now collected in The Sad Part Was are derived. Translated with cool elegance by Mui Poopoksakul, they are among the first modern Thai stories to be published in the UK.

As Poopoksakul points out in her afterword, she and Yoon are the products of similar backgrounds and epochs: upper-middle class children of Bangkok who came to consciousness in the late Eighties and Nineties. Often foreign-educated, fluent in English and conversant in global pop culture and media – Yoon did a stint at Parsons in New York after prep school at the Cambridge School of Weston – this new generation of Thai writers and artists were born into a society changing so fast that they had to virtually invent a new language to transcribe it.

In The Sad Part Was, the result is stories that one could glibly label as “post-modern” but which, in reality, perfectly match the qualities of the megacity where they are set. Bangkok is infamously mired in lurid contradiction, but it’s also a city of subtle and distorted moods that journalism and film have hitherto mostly failed to capture. The whimsical and playful surfaces of these stories have to be read against the high-octane anxieties and surreal dislocations of what was, until recently, one of the fastest-growing cities in the world.

Yoon uses the short form of the ten-page story to descend into the voices and minds of a small cast of characters: a schoolgirl and a beautiful female teacher who form a platonic lesbian infatuation while riding a daily bus in “Miss Space”; a couple making love during a thunderstorm whose activities are interrupted by the dismantling of two giant letters, which fall onto their roof in “Something in the Air”; a young man who meets a mysterious older man in Lumpini Park called Ei Ploang, who forces him to consider the intertwined nature of good and evil. In “Snow for Mother”, a mother waits for her little boy to grow up so that she can take him to Alaska to experience the real snow, which he never knew as a little boy in the tropics.

In “The Sharp Sleeper”, a man named Natee obsesses over losing his shirt buttons and is led into a strange reverie on the nature of dreams and the competing qualities of red and yellow pyjama shirts (Thailand’s political culture is riven by two parties popularly known as Red and Yellow Shirts). The commentary slips into effortless sarcasm:

Natee has proudly worn the red pyjama shirt several times since then, and his dream personality hasn’t altered at all. On the contrary, the shirt has encouraged him to become a man of conviction in his waking life. As to what those convictions were supposed to be, Natee wasn’t quite sure. But it was safe to say that a night shirt so principled wouldn’t drop a button so easily.

Since these stories were written, Bangkok’s political schizophrenia has lost its former air of apathy and innocence, but Yoon’s tone is quietly prescient about the eruption of violent irrationality a few years later. It’s a reminder how precious the subtlety of fiction is when set against the shrill certitudes of activism and reportage.

My favorite story here is “Something in the Air”. Its dialogues are written with hilariously archaic, bureaucratic formality, while delving into the disorientation of sexual and romantic hopes in the present century. After the couple’s love-making is interrupted, the young man suggests insolently to the woman that they resume in the open air, exposed to the furious elements. She agrees. They then notice that a dead body is lying on the roof nearby, crushed by the giant letters.

While waiting for the police to arrive, the woman sits quietly and describes her future, a happily married future in which her current lover will play no part whatsoever. He listens in melancholy astonishment until the couple are called to give their testimonies about the dead man. The officers then suspect that the couple themselves have done something scandalous – and so, stung by shame, the woman considers breaking off the relationship and setting in motion her own prophesy.

The Sad Part Was is unique in the contemporary literature of Bangkok – it doesn’t feature bar girls, white men, gangsters or scenes redolent of The Hangover Part II. Instead it reveals, sotto voce, the Thai voices that are swept up in their own city’s wild confusion and energy, and it does so obliquely, by a technique of partial revelation always susceptible to tenderness.

Lawrence Osborne is a British novelist living in Bangkok. His next book, “Beautiful Animals”, will be published by Hogarth in August

The Sad Part Was
Prabda Yoon
Tilted Axis Press, 192pp, £8.99

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder