Soho Repertory Theater‘s production of Sarah Kane‘s chilling play, Blasted — helmed under artistic director Sarah Benson — is a daring, bold take on the venerated British playwright’s inaugural play. While still very much a work in progress, Benson’s direction and Louisa Thompson‘s visionary design breathed into life Kane’s complex world in a quite literally earth-shattering way. The play, which first premiered at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 1995, was written with the brutality of the then-current Bosnian war in mind; a manifestation of Kane’s musings of what would happen lest that same violence were to happen on her native soil.
Kane wonderfully weaves in themes of violence, morality and redemption in Blasted in such a profound way, and this production achieves in bringing these themes to light nearly 13 years after its World Premiere. The play’s ensemble of three — Marin Ireland, Reed Birney, and the stellar Louis Cancelmi as a disillusioned soldier — each give hauntingly exquisite performances that both reflected and complemented the themes.
Blasted starts off with Ireland’s young Cate and Birney’s much older Ian entering a rather typical (if a bit more upscale) hotel room in Leeds. Through Kane’s sparse but vitriolic dialogue, we also find out that the two characters used to be lovers. Ian tries to coax Cate into bed with him, the latter resistant at first. By the second scene, we find Cate lying in a blood-stained bed, evidence that Ian had had his way with her, after all. Cate, realiing what had transpired the night before, comes to her sense and defends herself against Ian and escapes out the bathroom window. Meanwhile, a knock on the door brings about Cancelmi’s soldier, who is unnamed. After the soldier interrogates Ian and threatens hum with a gun, the hotel is blasted with a bomb.
At this point, the blackout (there are several of these in-between scenes) fades into the opening of the next scene, in which we find the room — and the characters — left amidst the dust and detritus, the walls torn apart by the explosion. It is here where the drama becomes interesting, heightened by the soldier’s descriptions of war and violence. There is one point made by the soldier that felt quite profound, wherein he asks Ian, a tabloid journalist, why the press does not frequently and accurately portray the destruction that happens during war.
Ian’s answer: “Because people don’t want to read about that.”
In class discussions, there was much mention of how our society, rife with domestic violence and murder, has become desensitized to certain types of violence, like the rape Ian inflicts on Cate in the play. The audience, upon viewing, sees it in the distanced way most in our society do, as if to say: These things happen all the time, so why do I have to get involved?
In contrast, the brutalities one faces in war goes unnoticed, and when acted out a few feet in front of us, we cannot stomach such atrocity. Kane’s intention is that we re-sensitize ourselves to the more gruesome images of violence, which we would normally see on the television, or hear about second-hand. It says so much about the power of ephemera on the stage.
Of the three, it is Cancelmi’s performance as the soldier that stood out, mainly throughout the scene in which he interrogates and ultimately rapes Birney’s character. During the interrogation, one can sense the demoralization he’d undergone as a result of war; the pain becomes all the more overwhelming to witness as his voice cracks when describing the rape and murder of his loved ones, and even more so when his weeps ring out ominously as he himself rapes Ian.
On that note, whilst the cast was certainly one to talk about, I think everyone who saw this production would agree that the real star was the set design. The room, which fills up most of the stage space, gives one a voyeuristic feel, complimenting the characters’ extremely intimate interludes with one another throughout the first half of the play. The interludes soon take an emotionally-charged turn, as we find the hotel room disheveled the “morning after,” Ian clearly having taken advantage of the young woman. The disarray of what had been an almost perfect room reflected the change of pace within the plot, and would be a pre-cursor for the destruction to come.
Once the hotel is blasted, the original set of the hotel room is pushed back and the frame is all askew, exposing the steel that had held it up. In the forefront are exposed floorboards, amongst broken furniture and debris. No longer do we see the facade of a seemingly perfect world, but in its stead, a battleground. This new battleground is both emotional and literal; it’s where our characters get caught in the crossfire, looking for a way out.
Never has there been so apt a time in which to give Sarah Kane’s play its New York premiere; it dares you to look, until you’re left wondering if you could ever tolerate witnessing such cruelty again. Soho Rep’s Blasted is an emblem of our times — thought-provoking, cathartic and fearless.