photo by omer yukseker
The story of the how the British theatre critics reviled, condemned and sought to decimate Sarah Kane’s first play Blasted in 1995, dismissing it as being “utterly without artistic merit,” and accusing her of creating a hollow piece solely for the immature purpose of shocking her audience, has become a sort of contemporary theatre myth. British playwriting legends Edward Bond and Harold Pinter both stood in support of Kane’s talent, but, tragically, the deep despair and melancholy she felt prompted her to take her own life in 1999. It is mindboggling that only now, fifteen years later, is Blasted making its English Canadian debut at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.
Blasted takes place in an expensive hotel room in Leeds where Ian, a middle aged journalist, has taken his emotionally fragile and, arguably developmentally delayed, ex-girlfriend, twenty-one year old Cate, for what he hopes to be a rekindling of their physical relationship. When a soldier bursts into their hotel room and holds Ian at gunpoint, it becomes clear that this play is not rooted in the historical reality of Leeds in the mid 1990s, but instead, draws what would have been a clear parallel in 1995 to the Bosnian War. It seems so naive to me that, even in a world that had not yet known the terrors of September 11th, 2001, nor heard of the horror of the Rwandan genocide or faced the consequences of the War in Iraq, that the general public reacting to this play seemed to believe that Great Britain was somehow immune to ever experiencing such atrocities. Of course, for contemporary audiences, the soldier’s entrance may conjure up images from “The War on Terror” instead of Bosnia; the effect feels just as immediate and socially and politically relevant.
It seems even more absurd to me that a play where a soldier asks a journalist why he does not report the gruesome perversions of war, such as sadistic sexual torture of innocent civilians, and the journalist responds, “No one’s interested” that a journalist in 1995 could say that this play has no message. Blasted is a play that takes humanity at its most loathsome and deplorable, the truths that are hidden away in the darkest crevices of foreign soil, free from the social structures of North America and most of Europe, and thrusts them into the ordinary, mundane modern world, the world that knows such carnage is happening, but that is content to remain distanced and unaffected as it seeks to distract itself through a multibillion dollar media machine which has been constructed entirely for that purpose. Kane said of her work, “The violence in this play is completely de-glamorized. It’s just presented… and it becomes utterly repulsive.” It is so interesting to me that we, as a society, are so mesmerized by cruelty when it is packaged up and fed to us by Hollywood, but when the reality of it is revealed, we blame the art instead of examining how it is that we can allow the reality of it to exist in our world. Richard Ouzounian said in his review of this production, “I didn’t think [the violence] would be layered onto the script the way Whitesnake songs are in Rock of Ages.” Human beings are mutilated in this world every day, Mr. Ouzounian, children are raped and tortured and people are committing the most heinous, disgusting, perverted, sick, twisted crimes in the world of reality outside the theatre. For people in war ravaged areas, that is everyday life. As Harold Pinter said of Kane, she is “facing something actual and true and ugly and painful.” People do not, however, burst out singing Whitesnake songs, with a full rock and roll band and synchronized choreography accompanying them, in the real world; that is the sort of fiction that is sensationalized by our media to distract us from weightier, more critical and disturbing issues.
Brendan Healy’s production is a powerful and thought provoking one. Julie Fox has constructed a gorgeous hotel room set in a box with a wall that comes down quickly over the action from all different angles. The briskness with which the audience is cut off from the action that it has become so fully engrossed in, along with Healy’s use of loud downpours and sharp blackouts add an ominous tension to the evening to the point of heart palpitations. Kane’s script is filled with actions that require creative staging, including a blowjob, Ian’s rape by the soldier, and urination and defecation onstage, and Healy is very skilled at finding a balance between realism, and yet still maintaining a strong theatrical aesthetic. The way that these acts were presented worked for me and, given Ouzounian’s opinion that this production is “too much,” it seems likely that Healy took the play in the right direction for Torontonian audiences, but I have to say, I was open to the possibility of seeing an even more brutal level of realism, akin to the work of New York’s Wooster Group, given the nature of the piece. I think it certainly is one that offers that opportunity to artists willing to push the boundaries of art to the utmost extreme.
Of course, the bold, fierce, courage of the three actors in Blasted is what gives so much depth and resonance to this piece. Dylan Smith is terrifying as the soldier, but not always in the way that is expected of him. David Ferry shows a huge myriad of emotion in Ian, from the most loathsome bully, to the most pathetic vulnerability, raising the question of where the line can be drawn between the soldier raping Ian and Ian who rapes Cate; how do we define monstrosity? When does seduction become coercion and when does coercion turn to violence? Ferry also manages to show Ian’s sincere care for Cate without undermining the inherent creepiness and brutality of their relationship. Michelle Monteith is a marvel as Cate, who fluctuates between being very childlike and easily dominated, to ultimately proving her shrewd survival skills. Monteith immerses herself completely in Cate’s inquisitive wonder and also in the terrifying fits that she suffers under stress. It is a truly gripping and earnest performance.
Blasted is not an easy play to watch, it is not intended as horror entertainment, but seeks to remind us how quickly apathy can turn to holocaust and that no city, no matter how civilized it considers itself to be, is invulnerable to war. Sarah Kane knew that the world can be a devastating place and she also knew that pushing the shocking truths of the human condition under the carpet does nothing to confront the power of evil in our society. The theatre is a place where artists seek to challenge the way that we see our world, it is a place for bravery, a place for truth, and a place for discussion. I’m pleased to see Buddies in Bad Times is proudly upholding this tradition.