FringeReview UK 2016
Katie Mitchell brings the internationally-produced Sarah Kane (1971-99) to the NT for the first time in her 1998 play Cleansed. Michelle Terry stars in a controversial play, where Mitchell’s decisions spark a few controversies of their own.
Katie Mitchell has brought the first production of a Sarah Kane play to the National, seventeen years after the dramatist’s death: this, with her five plays being continuously produced internationally. Even now, with the National gleefully reporting faintings and walkouts, it seems we’re not quite ready for her. That’s our shame, not hers.
Graham a user is injected with a smack-in-the-eye by Tinker, a Dr Mengele figure denying he’s a doctor, experimenting with torture on loving couples to see how far they’ll suffer for love. Grace seeking her brother Graham six months later loves him in every sense; simultaneously Carl loves Rod. Robin, swapping clothes with Grace, adores her. Grace voluntarily steps into the shoes walking her to this place and finds Graham. Both couples manage to make love. Grace watches with increasing horror as Carl’s progressively maimed – tongue hands genitals – and in one scene literally dyno-rodded, a physical pun in Kane’s spirit.
When live rats are shot and Carl breaks ‘do it to Rod’ we’re being loudly quoted 1984. Other dystopias jostle like Pinter’s The Hothouse and most of all Büchner’s Woyzeck – soldier-turned-experiment – which Kane directed. Touchingly, too, flowers breed through the floor-cracks, out of a poem by Brian Patten. Yet Kane’s wholly individual.
Mitchell can gild and geld. Here, in a cast led by Michelle Terry as a transfixing Grace, Mitchell out-Kane’s Kane in directorial decisions seemingly designed to snuff Kane’s redemptive moments. These, despite everything, glimmer.
Difficulties begin in Kane’s exiguous settings: Cleansed moves from snowflakes to sun, on the whistling fence perimeters of a university. Here, Alex Eales’ naturalistic design replicates a derelict hospital lab with broken skylight. Scurrying hooded figures out of The Prisoner whizz trolleys in and out, enforcing boss Tinker’s experiments. Or they march in with flowers and umbrellas, out of Magritte: striking but gesturing to an authority that doesn’t exist save with Tinker, since whatever politics Kane alludes to is lost in this apolitical vacuum, a comment on our times, not Kane’s.
The text directs shrouded figures at certain points, though some terrible complicit intimacy is lost. Equally scripted, rats gnawing at the living was elegantly dealt with, though there were banana-skins of comedy (the last NT rats scurried in London Assurance). Equally Tinker’s own obsession, a Woman (Natalie Klamar) dancing in a cubicle, emerges to Tinker’s compliments about her breasts: this raised cruel guffaws from some front-row women that’s at least off-putting for Klamar. That the self-loathing Tinker, inscrutably played by Tom Mothersdale, should also feel love is part of Kane’s point though; here Mitchell adds her spin.
Terry’s Grace, in Graham’s suit or vulnerably naked, concentrates anguish and compassion not just for her brother but Carl, Robin, everyone self-incarcerated (as in Kafka, despite the goons, one might escape). The notion Grace might become physically, voluntarily the object of her love raises issues not even Kane can compass here, but which she intends should resonate.
Whilst Matthew Tennyson as Robin and Graham Butler as Graham lend a stark dignity to their suffering, and Peter Hobday and George Taylor almost twitch and jerk on piano-wire as Carl and Rod, it’s Terry’s witness of anguish, of concentration, of touching raw wounds helplessly, that stamps this production as a road to redeeming Cleansed for ourselves. For Terry and for Kane at least, this is certainly more than worth queuing for.