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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Edinburgh in the time of Harry Potter - growing up in a city that became famous for a book

At first, JK Rowling was considered a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. 

In an Edinburgh playground, circa 1998, I found myself excluded from one of the world’s first Harry Potter cliques. My best friend Sophie had a copy of a book with a title which seemed indecipherable to me, but she insisted it was so good she couldn’t possibly let me read it. Instead, she and the other owner of a book huddled together in corners of our concrete, high-walled playground. I was not invited.

Exclusion worked. Somehow I procured a copy of this book, rather sceptically read the praise on the cover, and spent the next day avoiding all company in order to finish it. After my initiation into the small-but-growing clique, I read the second book, still in hardback.

Edinburgh at that time was something of a backwater. Although it still had the same atmospheric skyline, with the castle dominating the city, the Scottish Parliament was yet to open, and the Scottish banks were still hatching their global domination plans. The most famous author of the moment was Irvine Welsh, whose book Trainspotting chronicled a heroin epidemic.

In this city, JK Rowling was still considered to be a local author done good, rather than fiction’s future megastar. She gave talks in the Edinburgh Book Festival, a string of tents in the posh West End Charlotte Square. By the time I saw her (Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, hardback edition, 1999), she had graduated from the tepee to the big tent reserved for authors like Jacqueline Wilson and Michael Rosen. At the end we queued up for the book signing, and she told me she liked my purple dungarees.

At that time, there were no films, and what the characters should look and sound like was a constant playground debate. Another member of the Harry Potter clique I spoke to, Sally*, remembers how excited she was that “she did the same voice for Hagrid that my mum did when she was reading it to me”.

About the same time, a rumour spread around school so incredible it took a while to establish it was true. JK Rowling was moving to the street where some of our Harry Potter clique lived. We started taking detours for the privilege of scurrying past the grand Victorian house on the corner, with its mail box and security keypad. The mail box in particular became a focus of our imagination. Sophie and I laboured away on a Harry Potter board game which – we fervently believed – would one day be ready to post.

Gradually, though, it was not just ten-year-olds peeping through the gate. The adults had read Harry Potter by now. Journalists were caught raking through the bins.

Sally recalls the change. “It was exciting [after she first moved in], but as it was just after the first book it wasn’t as much of a big deal as it soon became,” she recalls. “Then it just felt a little bizarre that people would go on tours to try and get a glimpse of her house.

“It just felt like an ordinary area of town with ordinary people and it made me realise the price that comes with fame.”

Edinburgh, too, began to change. As teenagers (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, 2003) we liked to gather at the Elephant House cafe, on the bohemian George IV Bridge. We knew it was one of the cafes JK Rowling had written in, but we also liked its round wooden tables, and its bagels, and the fact you got one of the hundreds of miniature elephants that decorated the café if your bagel was late. It became harder and harder to get a seat.

We scoffed at the tourists. Still, we were proud that Harry Potter had put our city on the map. “As I grew older, it was fun to think of her writing the books in local cafes and just being an ordinary person living in Edinburgh with a great imagination,” Sally says. As for me, it was my trump card during long summers spent with bored Canadian teenagers, who had not heard and did not care about anything else relating to my teenage life in Scotland.

The last in the series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, was published in July 2007, a month after I left high school. Not long after that, I left Edinburgh as well. The financial crash the following year stunned the city, and exiled graduates like me. I fell out the habit of reading fiction for fun. JK Rowling moved to a house on the outskirts of Edinburgh, ringed by 50 foot hedges. The Scottish independence referendum divided my friends and family. On Twitter, Rowling, firmly pro-union, was a target for cybernats.

Then, two years ago, I discovered there is another Harry Potter city – Porto. As in Edinburgh, medieval passageways wind past stacked old houses, and the sea is never far away. JK Rowling lived here between 1991 and 1993, during her short-lived marriage, and drafted the first three chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. In the university district, students wear black, ragged gowns, and the fantastical wooden carvings of the Livraria Lello bookshop is tipped to be the inspiration for some of the aesthetic Rowling applies to the books.

I don’t know whether it did or not. But it made me realise that no city can possess an author, and not only because she could afford to any part of the globe at whim. Standing in the bookshop and watching the students drift by, I could imagine myself in some corner of the Harry Potter world. And simultaneously, perhaps, some tourists queueing for a table at the Elephant House were doing the same.

*Name has been changed

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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