I'd never seen a Sarah Kane play until Tuesday, when I went to the Barbican to see Thomas Ostermeier's Berlin production of Blasted. It's felt like a serious sin of omission, given the amount of discourse about her work on the university circuit, and the haste with which all the critics who condemned her so roundly when these plays were first shown have been rushing to canonise her since her suicide..... At the same time, there's a real trepidation attached to seeing this work. The writer's death colours it - you can't think of the violence as dark humour, as you do when you see similar things in (for example) Calixto's work . This feels like her sincere vision of the world, and the depth of the depression demands attention. I remember when a drama school took on her last play, 4:48 Psychosis, with students a few years ago, there was a real problem, and several of the cast needed counseling. So I went prepared for pain.
I'm not sure pain was what I got, though. Yes, the play was bleak and violent, with only the tiniest hints of hope for humanity - but it was also so cold in its extremity (and this may have been the production rather than the writing) that I found myself being impressed rather than moved, provoked rather than nauseous. Even when Ian eats the baby's corpse, the production's efficiency made it like reportage rather than viscerally revolting. There was a truly extraordinary coup de theatre when the hotel room set was completely zerbombt - and I guess this does serve as a symbol of our 21st century terror that our world may be blown apart at any moment. But the destruction was so blazingly well handled by director and designer, with the stage revolving backwards and forwards and a wall of white light using contemporary technology to look at the fragility of the contemporary, that we secretly felt that everything was actually under control. The violence remained safe - as, in the theatre, it probably should. The performance worked through this classical director controlling the romantic tendencies of the writer.
I found myself provoked by a programme quotation from Kane, where she says that "the seeds of full-scale war can always be found in peacetime civilization". In other words, the play's private first half, dealing with the violence inherent in an erotic relationship, is the seed for the tree of the second half, when the soldier arrives and total horror breaks out in the room and outside it. I can't agree. Surely it's the other way round? Surely it's because the social structures within which we exist are so un-natural that our private relationships can become so abusive, so like warfare? Isn't the irrational violence that our species, alone amongst animals, shows to its own kind, the result of the disjunction between the bio-sphere for which we evolved and the techno-sphere within which we now live?