Nov 11, 2006

Blasted at the Barbican

For me the problem with Sarah Kane is the idea of Sarah Kane. At the age of 23, her debut Blasted became the first play that people really tried to be self-righteously scandalised by since the 60s. Five years later she killed herself and the hard work of manufacturing a myth entirely incongruous with her body of work could begin. She became the manic depressive, writing her pain in ever more shocking, ever more outrageous ways. And thus a generation of budding young things imagined the path to posterity to be paved with outrageous sex and violence and unrelenting misery. Problem is, without the thought, care, ambiguity, intelligence and hope beautifully laced through Kane's ethereal writing, the entirely artificial 'shock' over Blasted would have faded quickly and left nothing behind.

This German production, at the Barbican as part of its impressive Bite '06 season, goes back to Kane's first play and takes pains to point out everything that was missed just over a decade ago. The infamous scenes of sex and violence are downplayed, hidden behind sofas and beds and coats, played out in darkness or half light. There are no loud and angry shocks here; even the blast between the Acts is a lyrical dream, the set slowly and smoothly seperating as a heavy rain of rubble pours gently onto the stage.

The play consequently becomes a quiet, slow, achingly painful dissection of the potential for inhumanity. It is the timing that is most startling in this production. Every silence, from Cate's first entrance and her long, careful examination of the glossy hotel room to magnificent last few moments, is teased out to perfection. Most startling of all is Thomas Thiem as the anonymous soldier. He describes his own horrifying atrocities and carries out brutal acts of violence onstage with a quiet, calm melancholy that is as terrifying as it is achingly sad.

Like Fassbinder's Pre-Paradise Sorry Now, Blasted explores the cruelty and a brutality latent in the everyday and its manifestation in the torture and genocide of war. However, in contrast to Fassbinder's unrelenting bleakness, Blasted, like Cleansed, its pseudo-sequel, is a play of hope. Here, as with everything in this production, the final image of humanity amidst the devastation of war is played slowly, carefully and, it must be said, beautifully. This is a production by a company that truly understands Kane, and in eschewing shock and awe for a deliberately slow naturalism they honour the complexity and the beauty of her writing.

Why is it then, that it has required a German company for such a powerful reading of a very English playwright (the references to Elland Road and Joeys being the only thing that really jars in the German translation). Well for a start they have been doing Kane well for a lot longer than we have. Her work was almost immediately embraced in Germany even while it was still scorned and simplified in this country. And that comes down to what we in this country, and they in Germany, are used to seeing in the theatre.

Kane's fierce, postmodern works are for me far better understood as part of a post-Brechtian German tradition that includes Fassbinder and Heiner Muller, than alongside Ravenhill and Anthony Neilson as some fatuous 'In-Yer-Face' movement deliberately constructed by certain smug tossers in the media to parallel the publicity hungry YBAs. Such a frame of reference does Kane and her work no favours.

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