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Fringe Online 2020

Low Down

Directed by Tinuke Craig for Chichester Festival Theatre Designed by Alex Lowde, lit by Joshua Pharo, with composition and Sound Design by Anna Clock. Film design by Ravi Deepres, Movement Director Jenny Ogilvie, Charlotte Sutton Casting Director. Till November 7th   accessed online only from 5th.


Even with the new restrictions this production will complete its short run online though performances will continue live to an empty house. Chichester Festival Theatre have cheated lockdown a bit like this work’s premiere. September 1998, a Paines Plough production of one Marie Kelvedon’s first play. Crave, was in fact Sarah Kane’s fourth, given a pseudonym to avoid critical vitriol. No-one as the truth emerged could deny its astonishing poetry wrenched out of despair. No elaborate set, no sites of violence: a whiplash of words mostly self-administered.

Crave is Kane’s most rapt work, the one confirming her theme was love. Love abused, shredded, derided, pissed on, torn, abused: the first intimation of the terrible. The work Kane wrote despairing of love.

Directed by Tinuke Craig it’s simply designed as a deep green-grey box by Alex Lowde, a metallic anonymity perfect in its tenebrous harshness: a bit like emerging from an underpass. The four actors advance on parallel travelators not unlike E V Crowe’s Shore Lady at the Royal Court back in March. It’s lit by Joshua Pharo, usually to halo individual actors after they emerge from dark; suffuse them in an alien benediction, or snuff them in the grip of light. The deft minimally-counterpointed composition and sound design by Anna Clock is unobtrusive but adds to the silence when the cello chords fade. And to big up individual silhouettes, the film design by Ravi Deepres menaces actors with giant back-screen avatars of themselves. Movement director Jenny Ogilvie keeps the stasis of walking treadmills only to break it towards the end where most unusually the actors mingle in a quasi-naturalistic direction; as if a brief human resolve can span the divide. It doesn’t last.

Craig keeps this straight: recent productions emphasise the Greek chorics of four actors side by side, which works best – with a few shifts. The few beats Kane notates – there’s barely any direction, in stark contrast to her previous work – gets emphasised as long pauses here. It’s not quite as Kane intended (though the revised text does add a ‘silence’ and ‘pause’) but you feel the ache of words and silence that bit more.

Though the four actors aren’t specifically gendered, slowly division occurs, actors pounce on slivers of difference. There is though vestigial characterising. Erin Doherty’s C dominates; it’s impossible not to hear in the sharping of her voice something of Kane herself. Certainly C’s the lodestar of self-loathing, shuddering withdrawal, sawn-off soaring lyricism.

Jonathan Slinger’s reasonable-sounding A mesmerises as the tender monologist, gently prising apart his own wounds (‘We made love then she threw up… I crossed two rivers and wept by one’) till he admits he’s a paedophile – at one level. So tendering speeches curdle and ‘your heart will leap when you hear my voice’ glints two-edged. Each lettered character is many and no-one.

C’s bottomless echo of A in ’A fourteen-year old to steal my virginity on the moor and rape me till I come’ gets amongst responses A’s ‘Love you till then’. Here verbally at least Kane still shocks. Doherty’s deadpan, angry – the Chichester space edges her to shrillness – and deflated in a few lines. Doubled up in recalling the pit of childhood abuse Doherty’s splittering, spitting out furies to her tormentor. Slinger’s liberal-teacher tones need to cover less octaves. Insinuation, love, anguish. It’s the sonance of a dominant class: all told in sad new-man paragraphs.

Kane’s given C and A the major share of text. Nevertheless Alfred Enoch’s B enjoys a monologue towards the end, inscribing his boyishly cramped quality in ’The spine of my life is broken’ – imparting something of B’s anguished passivity:‘Now I have found you I can stop looking for myself.’.

It’s easy to over-read and fix these lettered people: they’re a cloud of identities these actors have to make coherent, sometimes overlapping, though performative identity is possible.

There’s also ghost ownership M describes, her mother saying: ‘That didn’t happen to you it  happened to me… before you were born.’ Later C summarises Kane’s self-accusation: ’I am a emotional plagiarist stealing other people’s pain, subsuming it into my own until/I can’t remember/ Whose /Anymore’, a complete thought finished not interrupted by A, B and again C. It’s us too who try fixing this quicksilver quartet, and find Kane’s asking us ‘And who are you?’

Wendy Kewh’s M too is authoritative in shivers of text, modulates a kind of RP voicing: resonant, itself subverted, counterpointing C’s yawp. Tone itself fights for dominance.

C’s ‘You’re dead to me’ opens and nearly ends the drama where if C’s closest to Kane herself, it makes sense that C speaks the language of medication, lines so clearly foreshadowing 4.48 Psychosis. As does ‘You’ve fallen in love with someone who doesn’t exist.’ In 4.48 it’s someone too the protagonist has never met, or most revealingly ‘it is myself I have never met’. We begin meeting that self here.

In one sense this Beckettian bounce of four heads marks a still point before the abyss of 4.48 Kane finished five months later, just before her death. Like all Kane Crave’s a scream. It’s screamingly funny, and in a blink will have you open-mouthed in recognizing death’s being courted, sexual abuse revealed under love’s courting and true love shuddering. M’s ‘A cold fuck and a goldfish memory’ and C (inevitably) ‘My laughter is a bubble of despair.’ Again C’s ‘I write the truth and it kills me‘ is no more than the truth, though only Kane knew it.

Crave’s structured both with stand-alone lines and a coruscating flood of chatter the whole cast throw desperately to each other as lines turn shorter and shorter, dilating out several times to monologue; then climaxing in a splinter of exchanges. There’s a lot of intertextuality going on, more than anywhere else in Kane’s output, a reaching out to the feel of others’ finite statements to bounce off and mock.

Kane hijacks that ur-text of quotable gestures, T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land ‘Hurry up please it’s time’ as well as Hamlet, ‘to sleep, to dream’, and makes them hers. Most important for Kane the Bible ‘Glory be to the Father’ is answered in a gesture typical of someone leaving a religious past: A’s ‘Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the law’ and ‘Love is the law. Love under will’ and ‘Satan, my lord, I am yours’ underscore that inverted sacramental of many ex-fundamentalists turning to Alastair Crowley. Finally the Gloria’s invoked filleted with that ‘You’re dead to me’ and the anguished ‘ever shall be’ answered ‘Happy… happy and free’. It’s the terror of what we can just bear.

This production delivers Kane pretty well neat. There’s little distraction, visuals emphasize agency once you get used to them. It’s a slightly bigged-up feel: pauses, amplitude. Yes Crave inscribes an intimate space to shatter in cheek by jowl, something not available in a pestilential climate you wonder what Kane would have made of. A fragile giant, her work will endure as long as theatre’s alive and challenges.

Craig’s honoured everything here: the cast are sovereign. It’s fifty minutes worth revisiting in its single-week run. Stupefying, mesmerising, whatever we throw at it, it’s a masterpiece that’ll never sit comfortably as a classic; and performed here so viscerally it should change our lives. One of the most important productions since lockdown.