The scene is simple: a hotel room in Leeds — the kind, as it is written, that is so expensive it could be anywhere in the world. So begins the most powerful two hours you’ll ever spend in the theater. Set against the tumult of an apocalyptic England, Blasted is a daring work by infamous British playwright Sarah Kane, which explores how a single act of violence over the course of one night can have quite literally earth-shattering repercussions. Written in 1995 at the tail end of the Bosnian war, the play sought to challenge the desensitization to which our culture often submits in the face of violence. Using the Bosnian conflict as a starting point, Kane toyed with the premise that the brutalities of civil war were not unlike those experienced in, say, a small hotel room in Leeds.
This astounding debut put Kane on the forefront of public debate, as it was met with much criticism and shrugged off as just another example of a young dramatist desperate to shock. Much of that criticism seemed to be forgotten by the time it made its way across the pond for its NYC premiere in 2008. Now, 18 years after making its debut at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in London, Kane’s play still resonates as our nation is on the cusp of possibly entering yet another war.
At the play’s start we find 45 year-old Ian and his 21 year-old ex-lover Cate at the hotel, looking to spend the night. In just the first few scenes, we already get a sense of the themes Kane intends to dissect over the course of the play as Cate and Ian discuss everything from love to death to even racism. Of course, it is the theme of violence that dominates; particularly, in the parallels between war itself and the atrocities the characters inflict upon one another. The first act of violence happens after the first blackout and we learn that Ian, after many attempts to coax her into bed in the previous scene, has finally had his way and raped Cate. As she awakes to find herself wrapped in blood-stained sheets, a war starts to rage – both outside the hotel and within the enclosed space to which we are privy. Silently resolving to take her leave, Cate feigns going to the bathroom to shower and eventually escapes, leaving Ian alone. Just moments later, an unnamed soldier eventually finds his way into their room and encounters Ian. After the hotel is then blasted by a mortar bomb. The soldier interrogates Ian further, their exchange foreshadowing the brutality that’s to come.
It was interesting for me to revisit this particular piece of work after 5 years, especially when the previous production had been so ingrained in my memory. It was the first time I have ever had to do so, and it felt much like diving back into a favorite book and getting something out of it that you hadn’t the first time around. Every few minutes during the performance, I kept wondering to myself how they would do certain scenes and it was exciting to see the choices that were ultimately made.
Under Will Detlefesen’s direction, the 2013 production by the Cryptic Fascinations Theater Company achieves in continuing Kane’s legacy. The company was formed by actors Marié Botha and Jason de Beer (who play Cate and Ian, respectively) after the two, who also happen to be a couple, had performed a scene together on a whim and decided to make a full production of the play. The production itself, which was held at the Duo Theater on the Fourth Arts Block, was an ambitious one. With a sleek set design by Jason Sherwood and beautiful simplistic costumes by Olivia Hunt, it was clear that though this was a mostly student-run show, it was one to be taken seriously. The real standout design-wise was Marika Kent’s gorgeous lighting (readers may remember her involvment in Fighter), which provided the perfect tone for the bleak landscape of the play, especially in the last few moments in the fragmented scenes depicting Ian’s demise.
The trio of actors is somewhat younger this time around, which might not mean much, but I noticed a distinct difference in the way the material was brought forth onstage. Before this, I would have probably told you that that Marin Ireland of the 2008 production was my definitive Cate. Ireland (who went on to receive a Tony nomination for her turn in Neil LaBute’s Reasons to be Pretty a year later) certainly gave a memorable performance as the stuttering 21 year-old and the idea of seeing someone else in the role made me a bit nervous, actually. This was a character that could easily become comical, and not in a good way.
Upon seeing Botha in the role, however, I will be quick to tell you otherwise. With her doll-like features and mussed up wavy hair, Botha just looked the part. Botha is able to make the character her own through her portrayal, delivering her lines in such a way that gave certain moments a bit of comic relief (and yes, in the best sense of the word). She also possesses great stage presence; subtle yet commanding it is the perfect complement to de Beer’s boisterous Ian. Whether pulling faces at his retching noises or arguing with him, Botha remains steadfast and ever-present, and for me, this completely carried the whole play.
The calm foundation that Botha laid was the perfect complement to de Beer’s Ian. Compared to Birney as the Welshman, de Beer’s incarnation was much more physical in terms of characterization, with him spitting, hitting and pounding the floor every chance he got. Like Botha, his portrayal brought out certain things in the text I hadn’t realized or thought of back in 2008, and it helped in further understanding his character and the journey he takes to redemption.
Logan George rounds out the cast with a strong performance as the Soldier. To me, this character is so iconic, as he enacts some of the most gruesome scenes which serve as a turning point in both the play and in the character Ian’s arc. After the disillusioned soldier recounts his horrific experiences in war, he goes on to rape Ian. Later on, after the hotel is blasted for the second time, the Soldier gouges Ian’s eyes and eats them. As before, I felt like a voyeur watching these intimate scenes, especially due to their graphic nature. There were moments when it seemed as if he was rushing through his lines, especially when his character was recounting war stories. Still, there was a sense of both desperation and hopelessness that came through in George’s Soldier which made these scenes just as effective.
Some of the best works of the stage are those which put a mirror up to society and challenge us to think. This stellar production of Blasted is proof of just that. What starts in a small hotel room is amplified by the circumstance of war, culminating in the decay of civilization. Sarah Kane’s commentary on our culture of violence dares us to endure that which we inflict upon others as well as ourselves. It is a vital piece of theatre by an inspired group of artists and is one production you shouldn’t miss.