Sarah Kane’s play is one of the most difficult in the repertoire of contemporary theatre. This isn’t because Blasted is hard to understand—it’s in fact quite transparent about what it means. Neither is it because the play’s form is terribly unconventional. Kane’s interventions into the typical arc of narrative and her literal deconstruction of the physical space in Blasted address her preoccupations with a devolving theatrical structure apparent in much of her work.

The play’s difficulty lies in the demands it makes on actors to embody horrific actions prompted by the play’s representation of an eternal war and the cruel necessities required for social survival. Blasted’s complexity also comes from the demands it makes on spectators to witness these actions and come to terms with our own complicity in or responsibility to what they imply.

I’ve taught Blasted often, mostly in undergraduate classes where one of the first questions we raise to Kane’s play is how in the world it can be staged. The many brutal acts presented for the audience’s consideration escalate in their intensity over the course of the play from sexual assault to cannibalism. Kane’s stage directions describe each act with almost prosaic matter-of-factness and no real assistance in how to manage the theatrical sleight-of-hand necessary to make them look real. Because violence—military, social, sexual, gendered, raced—pervades the play, it requires evidence of its effects: blood running from the actors’ eyes and from between their legs; the corpse of a baby that a character consumes, leaving a gaping red wound where he’s chewed at its flesh.

By the play’s end, the excessive violence has moved into Grand Guignol territory, running so over-the-top that it only underlines how the play refuses realism and everything for which it stands. That spectators aren’t inured to brutality by Blasted’s final image might in fact be Kane’s point. In director Sarah Benson’s excellent production at Soho Rep, the violence remains ghastly even as it gets so extraordinary it can’t possibly be believed. If you’re not moved by what Kane and Benson force you to witness, I imagine you’re at least compelled to examine why you’re able to protect yourself from the production’s emotional impact.

Benson’s production of Blasted progresses physically from a scene of bourgeois propriety to one in which the world has been turned completely upside down, literally blasted off its hinges by an unnamed, escalating conflict that moves from outside to in. The audience gazes (for a bit too long, while ushers make sure every seat in the house is filled with wait-listed spectators) at the pre-set, which looks like an up-scale, corporate hotel room, with bed linens in muted taupes and ivories, and matching curtains and rich woodwork all aligned to be comfortable but anonymous.

Into this highly conventional scene comes Ian and Cate, a most unusual couple, the nature of whose relationship is difficult to distinguish for most of the play. He seems a seedy businessman of some sort, wearing a rumpled shirt and suit, until he takes off his jacket to reveal a gun hanging from a holster under his arm. If the gun persuades spectators to read him as a man with special (and state-sanctioned) authority, that presumption is disabused when he calls in a story to an editor and later admits that he’s a journalist. But the gun is his to wield when he likes, and he does, usually in the sadistic sexual play he coerces Cate to perform.

The proximity of sex and violence in Blasted is underlined in this production by the revolver’s omnipresence. The prop marks how the characters trade power back and forth (as well as representing one of the most potent semiotic signs in the history of theatre). Ian’s gun stops being dominant only when a rifle enters the scene, trumping the hand weapon in brute force.

Ian’s gun underlines his masculinity—in some ways, it is his masculinity, since before long, it’s clear that his maleness needs propping up with external help. Early in the first scene, he strips off his clothes and asks Cate to put her mouth on him; when she refuses, doubled over in laughter, he says, “No? Fine. Because I stink?” The stench of Ian’s mortality infuses the play and the production. He’s dying, in fact, before he’s killed, his lungs collapsing (even as he continues to chain-smoke) and his liver corroded by cirrhosis (even as he continues to swallow pints of gin and glasses of champagne).

Reed Birney plays Ian with such conviction that his coughing spells—which we hear when he steps offstage to the bathroom, and later see, as he spits up blood onto a pillow—are unnerving and revolting, as though he’s turning himself literally inside-out as he tries to breathe. Despite his dance with death, Ian obsesses about sex, masturbating when Cate refuses him, fornicating with her listless body when she faints from one of her frequent, inexplicable spells, and taunting the young woman about her lack of experience and attractiveness, even as his sexual demands on her grow more forceful and lewd.

The sight of Birney’s middle-aged white body forcing itself onto Cate is repulsive but poignant, as if Kane (and Benson) suggest that male power prevails despite its packaging. Part of the terror Ian provokes is his utter ordinariness; as played here by Birney, he’s neither young nor virile, muscular nor particularly good-looking. The power of his masculinity defines him even as it kills him, but it seems ordained culturally rather than biologically in this production.

The enigmatic young Cate (Marin Ireland) seems to accompany Ian to this room willingly, yet she resists all his sexual advances. She appears somehow disabled both mentally and physically; her vocabulary is simple, her speech halting, and she suffers what could be epileptic fits that send her into trembling paroxysms from which she passes out cold. And yet as the play grows ever more grisly, she alone of the three characters—and the only woman—finds her strength.

Ian rapes her; she wakes curled into a fetal ball on sheets covered in bright red blotches of blood. Although she’s clearly hurt, she’s also angry, and proceeds to exact revenge on an increasingly hapless Ian. As his physical condition deteriorates, she thrives. Cate ends up the survivor, and upends the power balance between her and Ian by becoming his protector and nurturer, reversing the roles and expectations Kane establishes at the start.

Ireland (late of The Beebo Brinker Chronicles) plays Cate with utterly convincing, strangely appealing fortitude. The role requires the character to be at once nondescript and strange enough to hold interest, a balance Ireland strikes with emotional intelligence and physical precision. We’re never invited to identify with Cate (or with either of the male characters, for that matter), but in Ireland’s grounded, meticulously modulated interpretation, she becomes increasingly admirable and always compelling.

The play progresses scene by scene, with each detailing the degradations of Cate’s and Ian’s bodies and the space in which they try but don’t succeed to relate to one another. A soldier (Louis Cancelmi) enters at the end of the second scene, when Cate has escaped Ian’s clutches through the bathroom window. The power dynamic turns instantly, as the soldier (nameless and iconic) kicks aside Ian’s gun and orders the older man around with the point of his rifle.

This soldier appears to be of color, although it’s hard to tell the shade of his skin underneath the filth and blood and muck that cake his face and arms. He speaks with accented English of indistinguishable provenance. These visual and aural choices ensure that the soldier (called in the text simply “Soldier”) appears both non-specific and ubiquitous, a representation of the “Other” with whom the West is at war now and always.

The soldier quickly trumps Ian’s masculinity and his control over the scene. Race and physical and social stature matter not at all in a world where only the size of one’s gun bestows authority and power. If the hotel room was ever private space—given that it’s only, after all, a corporate illusion of “home”—the soldier’s invasion makes the first step toward the ever blurring boundaries between outside and inside, public and private, in which this conflagration takes place. The world (nominally somewhere in the UK) at which Ian has sneered through the hotel room’s window blinds—observing what he calls a “Wogland” being destroyed by “slag”—has permeated the room. The “other” has met him on his own turf to assert hegemony.

The political turns quickly personal, as Soldier sates his hunger by wolfing down the breakfast Ian ordered for himself and Cate, and then turns his fascination to Ian’s body. Although Ian asks repeatedly if the soldier will kill him, Soldier protests that if he did, he’d destroy his only companion, and would be alone and lonely. Where earlier in the play, Ian wanted Cate to end his already shortening life, once the soldier arrives, some primal impulse for self-preservation asserts itself and Ian doesn’t want to die. Ian watches the soldier eat his food; Ian sits pinned to his chair across the room, gasping for breath.

Birney pants loudly, mechanically, almost like a dog, and with palpable, ancient anxiety. His straightforward action, made almost dispassionately yet with full conviction, says more about the moment than might a more emotive, expressive choice. Birney as Ian simply pants, and spectators can feel him dripping with fear. The sound of his terror accompanies the soldier’s messy gorging like some elemental symphony.

In the script, Kane says that the soldier “very quickly devours both breakfasts. He sighs with relief and burps.” What our eye scans in seconds on the play’s page extends over a longer period of time in production. Even though the soldier wolfs down the meal, minutes go by as we watch him eat. We see the character/actor take every bite, chew it, take another, chew it, and digest it. The temporal dimension of live performance reminds us again of mortality—the actor’s and our own. Although he arrives on the scene as a malignant force, his hunger makes him human, and his determination to survive reminds us that he, too, is mortal.

The soldier’s hands are filthy and his face and arms are covered in black tar and blackening blood. His military uniform—unmarked by nation or ethnicity—is grimy and torn, as though he’s been in the trenches forever. Cancelmi, as the soldier, eats Ian’s food with an almost spiritual hunger, using his fingers to wipe up every morsel, pushing crumbs into his mouth without swallowing, wrenching every bit of nourishment from the meal as if he hasn’t eaten in a very long time.

Cancelmi’s deeply physical performance is intuitive and sensual. He plays the soldier as if his body has become a permeable membrane, soaking up information, sustenance, and sensation. When the soldier searches the room, he knows a woman has been present because he can smell the sex. He finds Cate’s underwear, which he rubs over his face with physical hunger. When he announces that Cate is missing, he mounts the bed and urinates on the pillows, marking his territory like a dog. Just as he makes his mark, as his piss streams onto the bedding, the world tears apart.

The blast that rends the room (and the play and the set) is loud, terrifying, and wholly unexpected, startling spectators with the sudden vehemence of the cataclysm. Just as the soldier—the underclass, the person of color, the “other”—comes to power, the world as we know it (with Kane always questioning just who comprises that “we”) begins to end. Dissonant sounds accompany the abrupt black-out and echo over the long moment the audience is plunged into darkness. Metal crashes against metal, steel seems to tear into pieces, motors rev and roar, until finally, the sounds of the apocalypse fade into rain pounding on the roof.

Ian and the soldier are even more bloodied and disheveled when the lights come up. The once pristine hotel room has completely disintegrated: the pretty wood that framed the bed now hangs askew, forcing spectators to watch the remainder of the play with a kind of canted vision. The door has fallen off its hinges, opening the room to a hallway that no longer seems to exist. The flooring has torn off; Ian has been thrown into the cavern of the under-stage, amongst steel beams and debris. The lighting has grown harsh, intrusive, inescapable, and cold.

Without registering their changed circumstances, except that his hunger and thirst is slated, the soldier approaches Ian, touching him, taunting him, refusing to kill him. Instead, he turns Ian on his belly and mounts him, pulling down Ian’s trousers and his own, lying on top of Ian’s back, holding his shoulder, murmuring into his ear, penetrating him, and crying hysterically and wordlessly.

This explicit rape scene feels interminable; we see (and practically feel) every thrust and shudder of the soldier’s sex and Ian’s violation. And yet the scene’s intimacy surprises almost as much as it repulses. The soldier cries with inarticulate grief that’s never named yet profoundly felt. He holds on to Ian literally as if for dear life, clinging to a stranger he can only reach by exercising the artificial power of his rifle. Ian suffers under the soldier’s weight and his sexual violence. But both men seem pitiful here, reduced to connecting with another human being only through their mutual degradation.

At the end of the scene, the soldier pulls Ian toward him with a gesture that looks almost tender, and then eats Ian’s eyeballs out of his face. Kane’s stage directions say, “The Soldier grips Ian’s head in his hands. He puts his mouth over one of Ian’s eyes, sucks it out, bites it off, and eats it. He does the same to the other eye.” In time and space, such actions can hardly be as mundane as they sound in Kane’s description.

In this production, the Soldier eats out Ian’s eyes in a final, primal act of urgent connection, as if by ingesting these organs, he will achieve Ian’s vision, and will bond with him in some mutual if artificially ordained act of insight. He chews Ian’s eyeballs with primordial need as Ian howls in pain, and the scene crashes to black. When the lights rise a moment later, the Soldier lies curled in a ball upstage near the door, away from Ian, presumably dead. Ian is left to haunt the bombed landscape, his empty eye sockets filled with bright red blood, blind.

Cate wanders back into what’s left of the room holding a baby bundled in a dirty blanket. Its mewling cries (which, through a bit of deft stagecraft, seem to come directly from Cate’s arms) rise then peter out, as Cate soon announces that the baby is dead. She rips floorboards from center stage under which she lays the body, ripping up pieces of Ian’s coat to tie two pieces of wood into a makeshift cross. Cate prays for the baby, “just in case,” then leaves to look for food, implying that in this new economy, she can sell herself in exchange for sustenance. She leaves Ian alone with the soldier’s body.

Director Benson leads the audience through several quick-cut tableaux of Ian’s existential despair as he tries to survive on his own. He cradles the dead soldier in his arms; he masturbates ineffectively; he shits; and finally, he digs up the baby’s body and bites into its flesh, chewing cravenly. Then he rewraps the body, places it back in the hole, and climbs in after it, until only his head—his eye sockets empty, torn, and bloodied—protrudes from the floor. In the script, Kane says, “He dies with relief.”

In production, though, given that we can no longer see his eyes, and that Birney’s face is caked in dried stage blood, spectators can’t quite divine his demise. In fact, when it starts to rain on Ian, Birney can’t help but react to the water pouring directly onto his head. After his scripted death, Kane says, “It starts to rain on him, coming through the roof. Eventually.” Then Ian says, “Shit,” resurrected into a world in which he’s still blind and still trapped, still excremental and elemental.

Cate reenters what’s become the graveyard of the stage (and the world) in a virginal white shift, bearing food: a sausage (even though earlier in the play, she’s repulsed by meat), bread, and gin. She sits by Ian, remarking that he’s “sitting under a hole,” an epistemologically impossible place that Ian inhabits nonetheless. He’s become Oedipus as Winnie in Happy Days, neatly bridging tragedy and the absurd in a way only available in theatre and performance.

Cate squats beside him, wraps herself in a hotel sheet, breaks off bits of bread, and feeds several crusts into Ian’s mouth, washing them down with gin. Reduced to acting with only his mouth, Ian/Birney intones, “Thank you,” as the lights go to black.

Blasted ends with a limited but clever and able young woman sustaining a man who’d once been her oppressor, offering a glimpse of forgiveness and cleansing gratitude. The final, quiet moment in Benson’s production offers the audience the barest sense of relief and peace, after we’ve been shaken emotionally and physically. (The noise that covers the scene changes is loud enough to make the theatre’s floorboards and seats tremble and rock.) Cate feeding Ian represents Blasted’s only moment of grace, and Kane and Benson temper its effect by placing this final exchange in a post-apocalyptic world in which such connections can hardly make a difference.

Kane’s brutal, unrelentingly dark vision of social relations is wrenching, perhaps more so at a time when American culture grasps at the possibilities of hope. In Kane’s dystopia, redemption isn’t possible. But perhaps the image of Cate breaking bread with the much reduced Ian represents a shred of potential for mutual human sustenance to prevail over the voracious, cut-throat competitions of recent history.

Kane’s disturbing vision reads, to me, as profoundly feminist, since Blasted deconstructs the social building blocks of gender and power even as it lays bear colonialism, imperialism, misogyny, and racism. After writing five short, elliptical, grimly powerful and structurally innovative and intense plays, Sarah Kane committed suicide. She was 28. The Soho Rep production is Blasted’s first American premiere. It’s a rich, devastating, experience of theatre, politics, and insight, which demonstrates the potential of live theatre to literally rock our world.

Moved and provoked,

The Feminist Spectator

Link to original post on Blogspot.

 

9 Responses to Blasted

  1. Jill — After having read your “Utopia in Performance,” and agreeing with your evocation of a theatre of hope, I find it difficult to find a place in my aesthetic for such a brutal play that exploits every form of violence possible. I see no Aristotelian catharsis, which then throws me back to Plato’s condemnation of drama for its negative influence on those who watch negative acts. In a world filled with brutality, what purpose does adding to it have?

  2. Jill Dolan says:

    Hi Scott, good question. I do recall mentioning Sarah Kane and the conundrum she poses in UTOPIA IN PERFORMANCE, suggesting that even in her very dystopian world, shreds of hope present themselves as possibilities.

    In BLASTED, I do find that despite the devastation wreaked by most of the actions in the play, on some fundamental level the play addresses people’s desire to connect with one another. And although in this production, those connections are rarely made, the effort–misguided though it might be–is, I think, hopeful.

    While I’d never condone rape, I do think that Kane is commenting on the pathos of resorting to sexual violence as a way of relating. Within that critique, I believe she does see hope for a different way of being together in the world.

    Significant to me, too, in BLASTED, is her refusal to place blame on anyone (or anywhere). That is, the world here is utterly awry, wrong in every way, but the dystopia she forces us to view and consider is one very much constructed by forces more powerful than the three people we see struggling to make sense of it.

    In the early 80s, Maria Irene Fornes wrote MUD, a similarly dystopian play in which the woman who’s struggling to find her own agency is murdered in the end by one of the men she’s been forced to nurture throughout the play. Some feminists at the time decried the work as anti-women, because this strong, determined woman was kept from fulfilling her promise.

    But that artistic/political choice, too, made a feminist point. I see a parallel with Kane’s plays. BLASTED doesn’t provide a happy ending; to call it hopeful would be naive. But at the same time, Kane’s darkest view of human relations still offers the seed of desire for something more, something else, something better.

    And in that, I do find hope.

    Thanks for the provocation, Scott, and for your continued engagement with my ideas.

    My best, jd

  3. Tony Adams says:

    One small note. This is not the American premiere.

  4. Jill Dolan says:

    Thanks for this, Tony. Some web research reveals that you’re correct: The Soho Rep performance was the New York premiere of the play. Do you know, however, which was the American premiere? Does anyone know? I couldn’t find that in a quick internet search.

  5. Tony Adams says:

    There wassome discussion about this in Chicago a while back. I had been recently done here as well. It looks like A Theatre Under the Influence in Seattle did the US premiere. It’s since been done several times before making it to NYC.

    Here’s another question for you. Kane’s work as always struck me as the quintessential theatre created (almost) entirely for other theatre people.

    Thoughts?

  6. Jill Dolan says:

    Tony, thanks for the info about the US premiere.

    Re whether or not Kane’s work is only for other theatre people . . . that’s an interesting perspective. I do know that the response to BLASTED I’ve heard from other spectators has been more positive from theatre folks (teachers, scholars, practitioners) who KNOW Kane than those for whom this production was an introduction to her work.

    That said, I don’t think Kane is “elitist” in that regard. I just think perhaps there are allusions peppered throughout that might be legible to theatre folks and not to others. But to me, that doesn’t detract from the power of the work at large.

    Your thoughts?

    Best, jd

  7. pritha says:

    Hi Jill! I am a postgraduate student of English, and have recently begun researching on gender and theatre intersections in particular. While scanning the net, I came across your blogposts and found them extremely cogent and thought provoking…thank you Jill. I started off on Sarah Kane’s trail, and managed to find her plays at the library. While I have studied Churchill and seen a production of Top Girls in my department under Dr. Ananda Lal’s direction, as well as presented on her at a National Seminar, Kane was a revelation. Can I share my reflections on Blasted and ask a few questions?

    It’s a very naked play as you’ve pointed out—very stark. There are no attempts at subtlety or propriety. It’s a world that’s blasted all such make believe, all such pretense at civility and society. At the same time, it is intensely human in the need for interaction at all levels: physical, and emotional. It’s like the Real that’s suddenly exposed, leaving us bewildered, shocked and insatiable for it at the same time!

    I felt as though the hunger would be translated into the audience’s hunger for this feast—visual, aural and sexual in its power play and brutality. The consumption of the baby, of the food, of each others flesh is set out for our consumption, unabashedly, such is the power of Kane’s work.

    I feel Kane brings up multiple issues through this play including that of possession and human relations, in their rawest, crudest formats. Professor, what must Kane have gone through to create this piece, I wonder. I myself am a poet and artist, and I know the distress and exhilaration of artistic production.

    As you have pointed out, what is perhaps most disturbing is the normalcy with which violence exists in the blasted world and before the blast as well. There is a madness in the inescapability from that violence.

    In many ways the play proceeds in describing changing equations of power , even as they are described in sexual and bodily acts.

    Jill, what do you think of the incessant conversations on murder and the possibility of killing between Ian and Cate , and then between Ian and the Soldier? How can we understand the condition of such conference? And the transmutations of the same?

    Reading a play text and watching a play are completely different experiences. I found your description of the performance very useful. The play performed in India would perhaps engender very different reactions. Performance elucidates the tension between bodies that touch, or do not. However, at the same time, interpretation of the body and its interaction with other bodies is so dynamic and different in every context that the play constantly revives and redefines itself, isn’t it? How would this play be received at different locations of the world? Do you think modifications would be necessary? It’s a difficult play to stage as you’ve said. However I feel that any modification/editing would largely take away from the play’s impact. What do you think Jill?

    Pritha Banerjee
    Kolkata
    India.

  8. Judith says:

    Jill – Old friend Tim Miller posted your blog on Facebook and I’m so glad I took a look. Everything you said about the oscars was true to my experience this year, although I suspect I liked Hugh Jackman a bit better than you did. I find him irresistably talented.

    Thanks for the great writing and I’ll check in from time to time.

    Judith Ren-Lay

  9. Tom says:

    I don’t know Blasted but saw a good production of Crave a few years ago. As I read your description it struck me as Pinter without any pretense of civility. Kane was obviously a tortured soul. I think she had none of the filters of language and culture that make life bearable. She put on stage what we really do to each other minus the social constructs that let us get away with it. The catharsis comes in revealing the truth in a way that will not allow the audience to build a polite fiction of a less brutal social contract as a solution. She wants our nerves to be as raw as hers and perhaps then we will change.

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