Posts tagged ‘sarah kane’

2 November, 2010

Reviled. Respected. Revived.

I didn’t enjoy the Lyric Hammersmith’s revival of Blasted – but you’d think I was sick if I said I had, right?

Sarah Kane’s first play features rape (both explicit and implied), bigotry, despair, physical and psychological torture, the sucking-out of a man’s eyes and the cannibalism of a dead baby. What respite there is comes from the darkest possible humour. And Sean Holmes’s production both lingers on the atrocities, and punctuates them with eked-out moments of anticipation-laden near-inaction: held breaths of suffocating duration.

It’s not a play you enjoy; it’s one you endure.

When I arrive home from the theatre, the first thing my housemates ask is “Did you enjoy it?”. Taking in a show is a leisure pursuit, so it isn’t surprising that people judge the experience on how pleasurable it is. So can giving your audience a thoroughly miserable time ever be considered a valid artistic objective?

To mix my media momentarily and paraphrase Sally Sparrow from the Doctor Who episode Blink, sad is happy for deep people. Enjoyment isn’t necessarily every theatregoer’s goal or expectation; or at least, enjoyment can be reached by more than one route – for instance, via discomfort.

Stick with me.

In Blasted, the Soldier (Aidan Kelly) accuses journalist Ian (Danny Webb) of closing his eyes to the lives and hardships of the people he meets. To watch / endure Blasted, and not to turn away when (for instance) the Soldier goes to work on Ian, is to prove oneself better than Ian and the people he represents (you and I). The enjoyment to be had from the play is a kind of solemn, supercilious smugness. “I watched. I didn’t pretend it wasn’t happening. I faced it without flinching.”

But who left the auditorium resolved to pay more attention to foreign wars, or to the people sleeping in shop doorways on your way to work? Not I. I was just relieved it was over. That’s just the thing: it ends. You know it’ll end even if it seems interminable (and those dramaturgical held breaths of Holmes’s play havoc with your perception of time; it’s masterful). You’re allowed to stop facing it down – it lets you win the staring contest in a way real life never will. The victory is fiction, and the smugness is founded on fiction.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Sean Holmes (director), Stef O’Driscoll (assistant director), Paul Wills (designer), Paule Constable (lighting designer) and Christopher Smutt (sound designer)

Cast includes Aidan Kelly (Soldier), Danny Webb (Ian), Lydia Wilson (Cate)

Need a second opinion? (Or for someone to actually tell you whether the production / performances were any good?)

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24 March, 2010

4.48 Psychosis

Magdalena Cielecka in 4.48 Psychosis

Magdalena Cielecka in 4.48 Psychosis. Image by Stefan Okołowicz

Barbican, 23 – 27 March 2010

Reviewed for the British Theatre Guide and cross-posted to The Collective Review

4.48 Psychosis is a gift for a director. Kane’s text – her last – is more prose poem than script, lacking stage directions or delineated characters: a nearly blank slate onto which a director can impose context, character and narrative. To Grzegorz Jarzyna, of Polish company TR Warszawa, that creative freedom is a double-edged sword: by over-exercising it in certain areas, he almost crowds out the strongest elements of his interpretation.

Every scene of this Polish language production has its conceit. In one, pills rain from a table onto the floor. In another, lead performer Magdalena Cielecka is silently mirrored by a small girl. Later, a naked old woman circumnavigates the stage while Cielecka speaks. These images are more of a visual accompaniment to the dialogue than an interpretation of it, and actually serve to distract from the production’s main strengths.

One of these is the oppressive atmosphere, sustained largely by the monotonous bass drones and seasick pitchshifted showtunes of Piotr Dominski’s soundscape. Combine that with lighting designer Felice Ross’s palette of confining spots and sickly washes and even the 1,166-seater Barbican Theatre starts to feel claustrophobic.

But the production’s stand-out, defining feature is Magdalena Cielecka’s performance. Her every twitch, tic and gesture is more fascinating and meaningful than the production’s whole complement of devices and visual metaphors.

As she details her planned method of suicide, she clutches her belly, or wrings her hands together masturbatorily through her trouser pockets. Eloquently but venomously she rails against the doctors that rattle off easy chemical fixes for her every symptom, and against the people and circumstances she blames for them.

It’s clear without any supplementary imagery that this person is grieving rather than self-pitying, that she’s damaged as much by unfeeling diagnoses and labels as by whatever’s happening inside her, and that, far from taking the easy way out, she’s desperate to free herself by any means, however extreme.

It takes until the play’s final passage for Jarzyna to whisk away all the window dressing. Here Cielecka’s face, softly illuminated by a narrow spot, is all that’s visible on an otherwise darkened stage; Jarzyna decodes Kane’s final lines solely through the medium of his star’s delivery and countenance. It’s revealing that this understated moment, rather than, say, Cielecka’s earlier crazed, blood-drenched assault on the cyc, is the production’s most enthralling.

Written by Sarah Kane

Crew includes Grzegorz Jarzyna (director), Małgorzata Szczęśniak (set design), Piotr Domiński (music and sound design) and Felice Ross (lighting design)

Cast includes Mariusz Benoit, Janusz Chabior, Magdalena Cielecka, Katarzyna Herman and Rafał Maćkowiak

Need a second opinion?

25 August, 2009

Traverse Theatre sweeps first week awards

Written for The Collective Review, 24 August 2009

It’s traditional for shows playing at the Traverse Theatre to clean up when the Scotsman and the Bank of Scotland start handing out their Festival awards. It’s equally traditional for the rest of the Festival to complain that the Traverse cleans up so regularly and predictably. There hasn’t been as much of that flavour of carping as usual this year; perhaps everyone’s realised that complaining is less constructive than putting on better theatre.

The usual complaint is that because the Traverse is a ‘proper’ theatre all year round, whereas most Festival Fringe venues are university buildings or churches or bookshops, draped with blacks and hung with fresnels for one month only, Traverse productions have an unfair advantage over productions staged elsewhere.

A decent technical setup, proper dressing rooms and an auditorium that actually feels like a theatre can do wonders for a production, it’s true, but all that is just the shine on its shoes and the bow in its hair. The surroundings of the Traverse can’t make a poor production more engaging, any more than shiny shoes and a bow could make one of Cinderella’s ugly sisters a desirable date.

The underlying accusation is that the Traverse isn’t really a fringe theatre venue, and by extension the plays staged there aren’t really fringe theatre, and so it’s unfair to include them in explicitly Festival Fringe-only awards like the Scotsman’s Fringe Firsts. But that accusation contains a damaging implication that fringe theatre is on a different plane of quality to mainstream theatre; that when lumped together in the same field, mainstream productions will naturally trump lower-budget, experimental fringe material.

Now that might well be true if all you’re looking at is box office figures. Give a representative cross-section of society twenty quid each and a choice between Dennis Kelly’s Orphans at the Traverse and Sarah Kane’s Crave at C Soco and the Traverse will probably end up richer.

But we’re talking about awards that reward “outstanding new writing premiered at the festival” (Fringe Firsts) or “venues and backstage crew who have managed to impress The Herald’s distinguished panel of arts critics” (Herald Angels). They’re awarded for quality, not for fringe-ness. If the Traverse picks up more awards than anywhere else, that should be a rallying call for companies performing elsewhere to up their game, and prove that you don’t need fancy lights and folding seats to impress the awards establishment.