Cleansed review of Sarah Kane's drama at the National Theatre
There's little to no opportunity to catch a breath in Katie Mitchell's tight and highly visceral production that has captured headlines over audience members walking out and fainting throughout the relentless 1 hour 45 minutes of stage torture. All you can do is look away and think happy thoughts - a luxury that's not possible for the characters who have found themselves in Sarah Kane's institution, where sex and violence is used as a weapon, and there's literally no escape.
This is not a production for the faint-hearted. Mitchell's biggest achievement is her overall handling of movement, sound and lighting - a gruesome mise en scéne that comes together to repulse the audience into submission. The anticipation ends up being as powerful as the action - you, like the characters, end up dreading the sound of the bell which brings forth new items of torture, and even the sight of the gun sets you on edge. The production hits its mark in terms of creating a horrifying and usettling atmosphere, but beneath that surface I really struggled to understand why.
As the curtain rises we're thrown into Kane's institution, where Grace is searching for her missing brother. She's soon stripped to the skin, and she watches in horror as authority figure Tinker dishes out a system of cruel punishments, ranging from strapping characters to gurneys, penetrating them with metal rods and cutting out their tongues. Snippets of narrative emerge, but are whisked off before they're allowed to develop, with a void in the text being successfully filled by the ensemble's swift and committed delivery.
For all the torture, gore and violence it feels so casual that it becomes devoid of any meaning. Instead of fruitlessly questioning why the actions are happening within the world of the play, your mind wanders and instead asks why you as an audience are being made to endure this visual torment, and you struggle to grasp the play's message. We become anaesthetised to the pain, and this 'cleansing' builds without momentum - it becomes arbitrary, and you forego searching for meaning. Amongst the noise there are some softer moments, such as the subtle simultaneous movements or the receding funeral procession, but sadly these are few and far between and lost in the shuffle amongst Mitchell's wider handling.
It's a triumph for movement director Joseph Alford who manages to make a small cast feel like hundreds, with perfectly choreographed movements and stylishly delivered entrances. For a play that lacks text, the world is bound by the flow of the movement, and the masked minions who respond to Tinker's every whim make the torture seem effortless. Paul Clark's music and Melanie Wilson's sound design maintains the atmosphere with a filmic sense of constant noise.
Ultimately I found it all too much. Everything is delivered in excess, from the burning of books to the force feeding of chocolate to induce sickness. The extremities overwhelm any message to be taken from the play, and I ended up wishing for it to end in order to be able to escape the room. Sometimes pushing your audience too far can obstruct any message within the text, and I'll sadly remember this as the production where I was thankful for being able to take my glasses off and look away.
"But, for all the play’s visceral power, it left me feeling drained rather than shocked into new awareness."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Heaven knows what it all means, if anything. As the last preview ended, a couple hurried out of the Dorfman theatre laughing that it was ‘the worst thing we’ve been to for years"
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"it’s hard to watch and occasionally repugnant, but it makes a compelling case for the distinctiveness of Kane’s vision — uncompromising, ugly, cruel and intoxicating."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard