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.

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The Jewish lawyers who reinvented justice

Two new books explore the trials of Nazis – and asks how they changed our conception of justice.

In August 1942, Hans Frank, Hitler’s lawyer and governor general of occupied Poland, arrived in Lvov. “We knew that his visit did not bode well,” a Jewish resident later recalled. That month, writes Philippe Sands, Frank gave a lecture in a university building “in which he announced the extermination of the city’s Jews”.

Frank and other leading Nazis were tried at Nuremberg after the war. It was, writes Sands, “the first time in human history that the leaders of a state were put on trial before an international court for crimes against
humanity and genocide, two new crimes”.

For Sands, this is the story of some of the great humanitarian ideas of the 20th century. A T Williams, however, is more sceptical. For him, the search for justice after 1945 was a wasted opportunity. “It began,” he writes, “as a romantic gesture. And like any romance and like any gesture, the gloss of virtue soon fell away to reveal a hard, pragmatic undercoat.” Did the trials of 1945 and beyond provide any justice to the victims? How many more deaths and tortures were ignored and how many perpetrators escaped?

Together these books ask important questions. Were the trials and the new legal ideas – international human rights, war crimes, genocide – among the crowning achievements of our time, the foundations of how we think about justice today? Or were they, as Williams concludes, “an impersonal and imperfect reaction to human cruelty and human suffering”?

Williams won the Orwell Prize for political writing in 2013 for A Very British Killing: the Death of Baha Mousa. His new book reads as if it were several works in one. Each chapter begins with the author visiting the remains of a different Nazi concentration camp – intriguing travelogues that might have made a fascinating book in their own right. He then looks at what happened in these camps (some familiar, such as Buchenwald and Dachau; others barely known, such as Neuengamme and Neustadt). The single reference to Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, published last year, suggests that it came out too late for Williams to use.

A Passing Fury starts with an atrocity at Neuengamme, near Hamburg, where, in the last days of the war, the concentration camp’s inmates were put to sea by Nazis in the knowledge that they would almost certainly be killed by Allied bombers. Williams buys a pamphlet at the visitors’ centre on the site of the camp. It informs him: “Almost 7,000 prisoners were either killed in the flames, drowned or were shot trying to save their lives.” His interest in the subsequent trial leads him to look at other Nazi trials after the war. His central argument is that these were not a victory for rational and civilised behaviour – the widespread assumption that they were, he writes, is simply a myth.

Williams has plenty of insights and is especially good on the Allies’ lack of manpower and resources in 1945. There was also enormous pressure on the prosecutors to gather information and go to trial within a few months. The obstacles they faced were huge. How to find witnesses and make sure that they stayed for the trials, months later, when they were desperate to be reunited with their families or to find safety in Palestine or the US?

The lawyers also felt that they were “operating in a legal void”. These crimes were unprecedented. What should the SS men and women be charged with? “They needed new terms,” writes Williams, “a completely fresh language to express the enormity of all that they were hearing.” This is exactly what the Jewish lawyers Hersch Lauterpacht and Raphael Lemkin, who play major roles in Sands’s book, were providing – but they are almost completely absent here.

Williams is also troubled by what he sees as flaws in the British legal system. Defence lawyers focused ruthlessly on the inconsistencies of witnesses, forcing them to recall the most terrible ordeals. One particularly devastating account of a cross-examination raises questions about the humanity of the process. The disturbing statements of British lawyers make one wonder about their assumptions about Jews and other camp inmates. “The type of internee who came to these concentration camps was a very low type,” said Major Thomas Winwood, defending the accused in the Bergen-Belsen trial. “I would go so far as to say that by the time we got to Auschwitz and Belsen, the vast majority of the inhabitants of the concentration camps were the dregs of the ghettoes of middle Europe.”

Williams has put together an original polemic against our assumptions about these trials, including those at Nuremberg. Sands, a leading lawyer in the field of war crimes and crimes against humanity, presents a completely different view of Nuremberg and the revolution in justice it introduced. His is a story of heroes and loss.

Lvov is at the heart of Sands’s book. Now in Ukraine, the city changed hands (and names) eight times between 1914 and 1945 – it is known today as Lviv. This is where his grandfather Leon Buchholz was born in 1904. Leon had over 70 relatives. He was the only one to survive the Holocaust.

In 1915, Hersch Lauterpacht came to Lvov to study law. He became one of the great figures in international law, “a father of the modern human rights movement”. Six years later, in 1921, Raphael Lemkin also began his law studies in Lvov; in 1944, he coined the term “genocide” in his book Axis Rule in Occupied Europe.

Both Lauterpacht and Lemkin, like Leon, lost members of their family during the Nazi occupation of Poland. Sands interweaves the stories of these three Jews and how their lives and their ideas were affected by what happened in Lvov. This is an important question. We forget how many of the greatest films, works and ideas of the postwar period were profoundly affected by displacement and loss.

East West Street is an outstanding book. It is a moving history of Sands’s family and especially his grandparents but, at times, it reads like a detective story, as the author tries to find out what happened to his relatives, tracking down figures such as “Miss Tilney of Norwich”, “the Man in a Bow Tie” and “the Child Who Stands Alone” – all involved in some way in a mystery surrounding the author’s mother and her escape from pre-war Vienna. But Sands’s greatest achievement is the way he moves between this family story and the lives of Lauterpacht and Lemkin and how he brings their complex work to life.

There is a crucial fourth figure: Hans Frank, the Nazi lawyer who was responsible for the murder of millions. Sands uses his story to focus his account of Nazi war crimes. Frank was brought to justice at Nuremberg, where Lauterpacht and Lemkin were creating a revolution in international law. Lauterpacht’s emphasis was on individual rights, Lemkin’s on crimes against the group.

This is the best kind of intellectual history. Sands puts the ideas of Lemkin and Lauterpacht in context and shows how they still resonate today, influencing Tony Blair, David Cameron and Barack Obama. When we think of the atrocities committed by Slobodan Milosevic or Bashar al-Assad, it is the ideas of these two Jewish refugees we turn to. Sands shows us in a clear, astonishing story where they came from. 

This article first appeared in the 19 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Great Huckster