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.