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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Buckets of pasta and the radio blaring? It's back to school on Lake Como

The breakfast show on 102.5 FM Sportiva blasts from windows and my friend Lucia sucks her teeth as we wind on foot through the cars. “Che STRESS.”

It’s back-to-school day on Lake Como, and the traffic is demented. The usually sedate town – you don’t come here to party, no matter how many times you may spot George Clooney on a Riva – has been roused from its long, summer slumber by an early Monday start and there’s an irascible jam along the waterfront. The breakfast show on 102.5 FM Sportiva blasts from windows and my friend Lucia sucks her teeth as we wind on foot through the cars. “Che STRESS.”

Hanging a left towards the San Giovanni station, we get a first glimpse of the camp of 300-plus migrants who have been gathering here since July, trying to get into Switzerland by train and move on to Germany. Repeatedly turned back by Swiss border guards, they return to Como and pitch tents and shelters on the slopes outside the station, before trying again – ­although in recent weeks over a hundred have got through.

Everywhere there is music coming from smartphones connected to the camp’s wifi, tuned in to radio stations in Ethiopia and Libya, Eritrea and Gambia. Young men lie out on towels and blankets. The wifi was pretty much the first thing that the local volunteer camp helpers got sorted, one of them tells me, access to radio and YouTube being an essential factor in keeping things relatively calm and optimistic – that and the great cauldrons of pasta.

Nobody here is going hungry, though plans to move everybody out of sight and into shipping containers near the town’s Cimitero Monumentale next week are making people nervous. Luba, 18, won’t tell me where he has travelled from, or how. From the way he says his name – too carelessly – I can tell he has plucked it out of the air.

“I am from Como,” he insists, quite furious, and then laughs suddenly, wanting to distract me, to talk about something lighter. “What colour is your car?” he asks, waving his phone with its radio station tuned to an old hits channel. Next to him, a boy has been rinsing his clothes in a bucket, and as he lays out a pair of wet socks to dry, we all rather awkwardly listen to Bryan Ferry singing “Don’t Stop the Dance”.

The female radio host sighs her appreciation of the crooner. “Che bello. Che stupendo. He looks Italian.” 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times