Lyric Hammersmith, London W6
Opened 28 October, 2010
I have seen Sarah Kane’s play performed in German, performed by a cast of disabled actors and even performed in a room in the very Leeds hotel in which it is supposedly set; however, having missed both its 1995 Royal Court première and the 2001 revival there, I had never hitherto seen a “straightforward” production. The word needs to be put into quotation marks when referring to a piece that notoriously includes epilepsy, cancer, copious masturbation, rape of both sexes, eyeball-gobbling, infant cannibalism and to all intents and purposes the modern urban apocalypse. Sean Holmes’ production is comprehensively committed, but is bizarrely a little too reverent to unleash the play’s full harrowing power. Especially in the latter stages, short scenes are divided by lengthy full blackouts behind the safety curtain; this inescapable awareness of the logistical business of scene-changing dissipates the effect of the atrocities we are then shown. Suspension of disbelief cannot be paused and unpaused in an instant like a DVD recording.

As Cate, the teenage girl who accompanies journalist and soi-disant “killer” Ian to his hotel room, Lydia Wilson is less obviously “damaged” than I have seen in previous characterisations. This diminishes the grotesque power imbalance between them as Ian proceeds to abuse her sexually and psychologically; Wilson’s Cate both can and does resist him, and never willingly cedes control. Conversely, this interpretation scores in that it thereby emphasises Ian’s utter inability even to conceive of being anything other than the bastard he is, as his sexual and linguistic violence continue regardless. Danny Webb is a first-rate actor, but simply cannot carry off a Yorkshire accent plausibly, nor should he have to: the play is set in Leeds, but Ian is explicitly not local. Even Aidan Kelly’s Irish accent, as the soldier who bursts into the room halfway through the play to rape Ian and eat both his full English breakfast and his eyes, sounds forced: Kelly is Irish, but I have never before heard one of my southern countrymen call a revolver a “goon”.

Holmes seems to have been determined not to impose any particular vision on Kane’s play, which is admirable in theory; however, her work is so ostentatiously anti-naturalistic that it does not just accommodate such visions but actively demands them. For a play that was so shockingly audacious only a few years ago, this feels an oddly timid outing.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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