Crave by Sarah Kane

Cast: Rakie Ayola (M), Christopher Fulford (A), Tom Motherdale (B), and Pearl Chanda (C)

Director Charlotte Gwinner

Designer Signe Beckmann

Associate designer Emma Bailey

Lighting designer Hartley TA Kemp

Sound designer Christopher Shutt

Part of the Sarah Kane Season, Sheffield Theatres

There are four people in a room.

There are four people standing in a room that is not really a room. A large square blue carpeted space, rising sharply at the back to form a blunt, square bench. It looks uncomfortable.

There are four people standing in the space and about one hundred or so people looking back at them. They look a bit like us; we look a bit like them. They are an older man in a badly fitting brownish suit, a buttoned up woman in skirt and proper shoes, a younger man in sports clothes and a young woman in baggy shirt, trousers and boots. They might be a bit 90s, they could be now. If I look in the programme I would find they are A, M, B and C.

There are four people standing in the space and they start to speak. Words pour out of them, words twist and bounce and reverberate off each other. They speak together, separately, occasionally over each other. Words whip past your ears, you try to latch on to them the way you really do when you’re listening to people talk. This is language as music, language as sound. Language as meaning not just in what the words say but in the spaces between them, their pace and pitch. This isn’t overt characterisation, with each person their own distinct voice. Sometimes they sounds exactly the same, sometimes they ARE exactly the same. I think they are four people, I think I can piece together two distinct ‘stories’ an abusive relationship of an older man and young woman, an unhappy encounter between an older woman and a younger man. But maybe that is just my brain making twisting together unconnected strands. In this spare, exact space the slightest gesture is character, is meaning. These people, not characters, people, one stares over our heads, the other off to space to her right, another resolutely to the blue carpeted ground. One of them looks directly at us, ‘you’ he says and I think he means me. The tight pinch of M’s fingers as she holds them together, the hopeless sag of A’s shoulders. I have time to look at them, to take in these details as it is only them, on the plain blue carpet, their bodies and their language.  Their bodies are taut with the tension that is holding them upright, their fatigue and focus. A few times they push themselves back to sit on the bench but are then propelled back into the space.

Language as quotation. The phrases whiz past, that’s from the Bible, that’s TS Eliot. Jebem radosznale, I am fucking the curious. The most plain, cynical, colloquial Serbian response to ‘How are you?’ And it doesn’t seem in the least strange that these phrases, or Spanish or German come from an English mouth. These are not carefully constructed, cohesive dramatic creations. They feel like real people, with pain and longing, memories, bits and lines that don’t fit and yet make perfect sense. They could all be one person, they could be any of us and dipping into literature, languages is part of the knowledge we collectively hold. The language, the form is precise, beautiful, but the meaning is slippery and multiple. This I think is what is meant by ‘poetic’.

There is laughter too, though looking back I can’t really remember any particularly funny jokes or situations. But there is humour in a turn of phrase or use of contradiction. The woman next to me is wiping her face and she could be crying or just tired.

And I’m thinking of the young woman who wrote this. I am thinking that I heard that this was the first piece she wrote, before Blasted even thought it was produced later. And if that is true or not this was still a work by someone in her early/mid 20s. Who took all the so called rules of writing, of character, narrative, dialogue, story, rolled them up in a ball and smashed them to pieces. Who created something that had all of those elements but none of them in the way we expect them. That this piece contains in its 40 tightly focused minutes all the major themes of her writing: the empathetic abuser, the tough fragile young woman, loneliness, longing, the extremes of human action from great evil to grace, in one person, in one moment. The unbearable pain of being alive.

The four, extraordinary, exhausted, people in the room are Rakie Ayola (M), Christopher Fulford (A), Tom Motherdale (B), and Pearl Chanda (C). They make 40 minutes seem both like nothing and as though we have always known them, together with director Charlotte Gwinner, designer Signe Beckmann, associate designer Emma Bailey, lighting designer Hartley TA Kemp and, by no means least, sound designer Christopher Shutt, creator of an atmospheric, susurrating soundscape.

I am in awe all over again with the skill, the complexity, the humanity of Sarah Kane’s writing. It still hurts like a bastard, for all sorts of reasons, that these few are the only plays of hers that we have. But we do have them and thanks again to Sheffield Theatres for the season that enables us to see and appreciate them all.

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Blasted by Sarah Kane

Blasted by Sarah Kane

Director Richard Wilson

Designer James Cotterill

Cast

Martin Marquez

Jessica Barden

Mark Stanley

Part of the Sarah Kane Season

As you enter the Sheffield Crucible Studio you find a large, very expensive looking hotel room. ‘Blasted’ is set in Leeds, and the hotel is commonly thought to be the Queens Hotel – which I had just passed on my way here. Having been into the Queens, in fact to see a student production of ‘Blasted’ which was performed there, I can say that they have the look of the room just about perfect. The set is naturalistic in every detail, as the door opens you see the rest of the corridor disappearing off into back stage.

This is the first full professional production of ‘Blasted’ I’ve seen. As well as the Queens Hotel production (by Felix Mortimer who has gone on to be RIFT Productions) I saw a reading at a Sphinx conference in about 1996 or 97 – not long after the original production. Then I saw a reading in Amsterdam in 1998. It was after that reading that I felt like I really ‘got’ the play. The Sphinx reading was very much ‘in-yer-face’ (I didn’t unfortunately see the original production which may not have been so at all.) The Dutch one gave more space; there was a sense of a distance between the words, the performer and you. This distance allowed you to hear the words, and have them impact you, without a definitive meaning coming from the performance. Perhaps helped by fact they were acting in their second, or even third or fourth, language. Paul Slangen, an extremely brilliant Dutch dramaturg, once explained to me the difference between the British and the Dutch/German acting style. He hugely admired British actors’ ability to completely emotionally and psychologically commit to a role. In the Netherlands, he said, you always have both the performer and the character on stage, the performer can both present and comment upon the character; both be and do. We had this conversation in 1998 just after having seen Crave – and there is something in Sarah Kane’s plays that lends itself to this less naturalistic, more conscious style of performance;  something in their precise, metaphysical language and construction. They are very, very real worlds, real emotions and people, but not naturalistic ones. They both reach across and hold a distance from the reality we the audience sit within. It is precisely this tension that makes them so enthralling.

Ok I’m not really saying very much about this production. So to get back to it. On to this very realistic reproduction of the Queens Hotel comes Martin Marquez and Jessica Barden as Ian and Cate. The acting style here I would describe as restrained British. It is absolutely not overplayed in the small and intense space of the Studio; it felt very naturalistic performance, almost as if you could be watching it close up on television. The performances may have been more subdued than normal as, rather meanly, I was watching it the night after press night, which is usually the worst performance to judge once all the adrenaline has left. We were probably not the best audience either as about a third to a half of a full auditorium were rather giggly, whispery students.

It is not stipulated in the text that Cate has learning difficulties. She has a stutter and fits and Ian taunts her with never being able to get a job. It is a valid, and interesting, reading of the part that she has some form of unspecified mild learning difficulties. It seemed to me that Jessica Barden was doing a slight learning disabled voice and mannerisms, where she is very clearly not learning disabled herself. This for me got in the way of her performance. I am aware that this has to do with my own particular sensitivity to ‘cripping up’, the practice of non-disabled actor playing a disabled role. Just to be clear, pace the bit above about non-naturalism and the performer and role being visible, of course any actor can play any role. However, they always bring on stage who they are. So in Selma Dimitrijevic’s ‘The Gods Have Fallen and All Safety Gone’, mothers and daughters are played by two men, observed by a real mother and daughter. The choice to gender swap is clear, and you can like it or dislike as you choose. Here, I wasn’t clear if this was a choice we were supposed to be conscious of or simply that we were supposed to read Cate as a learning disabled character. This is absolutely not me having a pop at Sheffield Theatres, who I know have a very active commitment in diversity of this and other kinds. And in the previous production I saw here directed by Richard Wilson, ‘Love Your Soldiers’, there was a disabled performer playing a disabled role, something I know that he insisted on. So it may well be that the choice came from not finding a suitable actor with learning difficulties, or not thinking that appropriate for this production. However, all I can say for me, in this show on this evening, it got in the way. I kept seeing a non-disabled actor, I’m sure a very talented one, playing disabled rather than playing the role. I will also say I would go a long way to see a learning disabled actor play Cate. It would be dynamite to see that sexual, abusive, loving and co-dependent relationship played out between a learning disabled and a non-disabled actor.

On a similar note, Mark Stanley brought intensity and menace to the role of Soldier. His speech of the rape and murder of a whole family was the first moment when this production really hit me in the gut. But. He is white. In Ian, Kane gives us a protagonist who is a racist and abusive. There was a palpable gasp in the room as he dropped the N-word just before opening the door to the Soldier. ‘Blasted’ constantly plays with the notion of who is I, who is us, who is the Other. Who has power, and who doesn’t. For Ian, the Other is the foreigner, the blacks, the Lesbos. To bring the Soldier on who is Black and British, in and yet not of the same world as Ian, confronts and subverts that view in a way that is slippery and ambiguous. It confronts us with our own views of who constitutes us and who is Other in our society. Having an entirely white cast, however talented and good, somehow loses the danger of that. I guess I’m saying this would be a more interesting production with a more diverse cast, even if you changed nothing else. Again this is not a go at Sheffield (the home of Eclipse theatre and much else besides) but maybe a gentle challenge to us all, me included, to consider how diversity can make better art.

That’s a lot of words talking about the production it isn’t. What about the production it is. It is a good, faithful, well-acted, naturalistic (dare I say very British?) production of one of the greatest plays of the 20th or any other century. It is beautifully realised, with one of the most convincing prop babies I have ever seen on stage – well done whoever made that. It isn’t the production that is going to float my boat but that’s me. It is strong, clear production of just the most brilliant play. I still came away in awe of the complexity, the humanity and beauty of this writing. And very, very grateful to Sheffield Theatres for putting on the season so Sarah Kane’s work can be seen, be appreciated and inspire us again.

** The review is edited version from the Exeunt original in which I incorrectly stated that the original Soldier, Dermot Kerrigan, was black. He isn’t. I was muddling him up with another version I had seen. Apologies to all concerned.