Seeing Graeae and RADA’s production of BLASTED moved me. I had expected to witness theatre in the raw; a form of theatre meant to make you squirm, but I hadn’t expected a script as poetic and full-on in-yer-face and in such contrast to the kinds of naturalism and entertainment that seem to be what theatre is expected to be.
I could write here about the brilliance of the partnership and how far theatre has come in the last 20 years; the lack of self-consciousness apparent in the dramaturgy, displayed with Deaf and hearing actors mirroring each other, integrating spoken English and British Sign Language with seamless and integral verve, using the aesthetics of access as device that creates a spectacle that is more than the sum of its parts.
But BLASTED is a play of its time and it made me think of the era in which Sarah Kane wrote the play (she was a 21 year old student studying drama at the University of Birmingham). This was 1992. We were just emerging from Thatcher’s reign and the threat of Nuclear Winter.
At the same time Yugoslavia had broken down and was at the beginning of a ten year brutal conflict. Unemployment in the UK was approaching the 2 million mark – and then, as now – it was all down to the laziness of the individual and nothing to do with the stultifying repression of a capitalist, consumer society, sucking the life and soul and living breath out of every person suffering its constraints.
Although the theatre only held 65 people when it first played at the Royal Court in London in 1995, BLASTED turned out, reputedly to be “one of the most controversial and influential plays of the second half of the 20th century”. It examines the male psyche under a female gaze in a way that hadn’t been done before. It interrogates male brutality and the oppressive filter it sits within, in an unprecedented outpouring that takes a microcosm and literally blasts it apart to reveal the animal within. It is a very traumatic and traumatising piece of work that goes to the heart of the instincts that create war.
When BLASTED first played with its blatant expressions of racist, homophobic language, rape, misogyny and cannibalism, and its more subtle exposition of how war infects the mind, it was railed against by a white, male, middle-class press. The Daily Mail ran a review headlined “this disgusting feast of filth”. Yet in essence Blasted is an examination of love and of the idea that there is a god who holds every memory or essence of human existence. (Caryl Churchill is quoted as calling it “a tender play”).
When interviewed by Dan Rebellato in 1998, Sarah Kane said: “They didn’t know what else to say… Everyone was a middle-aged, white middle class male journalist and it hadn’t occurred to me that as the main protagonist is a white, male journalist who abuses and rapes a young woman, that they wouldn’t like it”.
Kane goes on to talk about BLASTED as being written in a form “that hadn’t happened before. And because it was a form that hadn’t happened before the critics didn’t know what to write about it.” She quips that Michael Billington wrote about BLASTED on several occasions, changing his mind with each review. “And so they said, ‘this is a writer who should be clearly locked away’.” She goes on in a self-deprecating tone to say: “They may have been right, of course.”
And at that point there is a poignant moment of self-doubt in Sarah Kane’s voice, before she goes on: “But if they don’t have a framework in which to talk about the play, then they have to talk about other things… mental health, whatever it might be… think theatre critic; think military intelligence… theatre critics see their jobs as to destroy people.”
And it made me wonder what Kane’s frame of reference was for her own sense of trauma; her inner understanding of the impact of her writing? Who was she writing for? And why? She tragically committed suicide at the age of 28 and BLASTED made me think to what extent suicide is an effect of the society we live in. What might Kane have gone on to write if she hadn’t killed herself after becoming enmeshed in the psychiatric system with its own white, male immersive sensibility and its own methods of repressive treatment, using the chemical cosh and ECT under the guise of ‘care’?
I don’t know Sarah Kane or her work. Graeae and RADA’s production has prompted me to delve into the traces of her life and work that exist online. And I think Graeae and RADA are to be thanked for being courageous enough to put on a production of BLASTED in these politically correct times when exposure of the reality of oppression can become shrouded by taboos about language and nuance – and the starkness of the impact of living in a capitalist society can be left hidden under a cloud of apologist rhetoric.
And it makes me wonder what might have happened if Kane had found Disability Arts? Would Disability Arts have been for her an umbrella under which her sense of the ways in which society disables with its persistent messages of shame and guilt for not adhering to the rules of perfection, play out?