Royal Court Theatre Upstairs at the Ambassadors Theatre, London WC2
Opened 8 September, 1998

"It isn't theatre," declared a friend after the London opening of Sarah Kane's Crave (whose initial Edinburgh run was mentioned briefly last month by Alastair Macaulay). I was surprised how strongly I disagreed, and how difficult I found my explanation. Let me try again.

It is true that Kane's latest play, which sees her definitively transcend the furore of her debut with Blasted, has no plot in any conventional sense, nor any physical action; Vicky Featherstone, directing for Paines Plough, places the four actors on a row of swivel chairs, the only bodily movement during 45 minutes being an occasional quarter-turn of one seat or another, so that when two of the performers get up and change places it strikes as a theatrical coup. Kane's script denotes the characters by initial letters only, and includes no stage directions of any kind other than indicating where to leave a beat between what are almost invariably single, brief lines; Featherstone has actors sometimes deliver remarks to an obvious interlocutor, sometimes to another party, sometimes leave them hanging directionless, so that we seem to be catching only fragments of monologues and conversations which constantly run beneath the lines we are allowed to hear.

The work resembles a spoken poem more than a play; indeed, it comes most nearly unstuck when it attempts most openly to be poetical, either with strings of internal rhymes or explicit quotation from The Waste Land. However, the wave of the language moves too quickly for these moments of awkwardness to have any lasting effect. Crave echoes Eliot's poem on many levels quotation, oblique reference, occasional lines in other languages (German, Serbo-Croat, Spanish) and general atmosphere; the city to which the actors refer might as well be Eliot's "unreal city", their emptinesses and sufferings those of his characters... but far more passionately expressed. Even when the object of want is not articulated (as, aside from one bravura extended monologue, it scarcely ever is), the ferocity of the craving itself is palpable.

Given these circumstances, then, is Crave a play is it, at any rate, a theatrical play rather than a radio piece? I believe fervently that it is, and that it gains more than most works from being presented in the living, visible, physically present flesh. Kane is painting fierce, impressionistic portraits of the turbulence in human hearts; for the work to be presented in any way less direct than this, with those hearts and mouths in the same space and time as we who witness and empathise with their longings, would be to cripple the work. It demands physical communion. That makes it theatre, and marvellous theatre at that.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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