Trigger Warnings- Rape and Violence

Sarah Kane’s first play, Blasted, begins with the ageing Ian grooming his young girlfriend Cate in an expensive hotel room. It escalates into bombings, rapes, the gouging out of eyes, and it ends with a baby being eaten. Since the effect of the short performance is pretty much as abrupt as its synopsis, the critical uproar it provoked upon premiering in 1995 seemed predictable; theatre sections were smeared with fairly unanimous distress and bewilderment over just what this 24-year-old’s ‘monstrous’ writing was doing to the theatre world. The Daily Mail famously branded the show a “disgusting feast of filth”.

Reading these reviews now, they smack of sensationalism and self-defence. Ian’s character is far from a stock villain, instead becoming Kane’s route to laying bare the nuanced toxicity of certain types of Western masculinity. The defensive reactions of the sea of old, white, male critics was evidence of how close it cut to the bone. As it is for many who find themselves suddenly under interrogation, critics seemingly preferred to decontextualize the play’s violent exploration of sexual politics, and so to write it off as perverted and unneeded, than to confront it.

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But Blasted’s violence wasn’t only informed by gender relations on British shores – it drew upon the atrocities of the Bosnian Civil War too. In ridiculing the violence which occurs on the domestic stage, the reviewers by association deemphasised the very real international political events which were taking place, and which their peers were reporting on. I read Blasted for the first time very recently, and found that the violence was difficult, but needed. I winced, cried, couldn’t make it through in one sitting – but don’t I see and hear worse every day? Cate’s abuse, Ian’s ruthlessly sordid powerplays, the Soldier’s almost pathetic conceit; these are broadcast to us all, though veiled in politics and not in their pared-back theatrical incarnations, through our phone notifications.

Kane’s critics chose to remove the discussion from its international context and figure Blasted’s brutality as sensationalist, accusing Kane herself for portraying such violence. She answered, “my imagination isn’t that fucking sick…I just read the newspapers”. Now, an entire world of people increasingly wired in and switched on to international news read the same events, see these same images – and worse, off-stage –constantly. In the current climate of the systemic racism in US police forces and elsewhere, the ongoing Yemeni conflict, the climate crisis, and countless other events of atrocity which are shared instantly round the globe and in which we all, rightly, feel implicated, we can no longer take offence at fictionalised violence. This would be to deny what is taking place now.

Perhaps our increasing interconnection has bred the kind of awareness which Kane’s work needed; perhaps her violence seems congruous to our experience now, where before it seemed extraneous. But this isn’t simply a testament to the educational virtue of online news outlets – it is also a stark revelation of the extent to which our political climate has numbed us to the potency of violent acts. Could this be combatted by a revival of Kane’s brand of ‘in-yer-face’ drama, re-introducing shock and indignation at violence as it does so easily? If so – if Kane’s theatre will help today – viewers must change the direction of their anger. The woman who shows us metaphors for violence does not deserve it; the people who commit it do. With its prescient exploration of how a society functions, or doesn’t, when people twist their agency to the worst ends, Kane’s play has even more to teach us in 2020. When read in their most metaphorical senses, the trajectories of Ian and the Soldier, both predatory, cruel, and in denial, remind me of the kind of harmful and counterproductive self-interest which we’ve seen on shameless display by multiple governments during recent weeks. Ian and the Soldier both end up dead.

As playwright Edward Bond writes of Blasted – “images are omens and we must learn to read them”. Might the rest of this year bring an appreciation of human solidarity for us all, as Ian discovers in Cate’s selfless kindness at the play’s end? Or, as Kane suggests in Blasted’s futile tragedy and its deaths, will this compassion come too late? I sincerely hope that it will be the former; in Kane’s appeal to us to exercise empathy both in our worldview and our relationships with others, I find a message more suited to 2020 than any other. Blasted, far from sadistic, calls us to view violence both realistically and discerningly rather than to bury our heads in the sand.

Image credit: Michael Thoeny