In March 2016, during an election year steeped with anxiety, rage, and shocking upheavals, Portland’s Defunkt Theatre staged Blasted, by Sarah Kane, directed by Paul Angelo, with performances by Elizabeth Parker (Cate), Matt Smith (Ian), and Clifton Holznagel (the Soldier).
I have no objectivity at all when it comes to this play. I wrote a dissertation chapter about it. I read every review, every book, every article in the play’s short history. I have a complete picture of the play in my head. But until that night in 2016, I had never seen it performed. I was terrified.
It was devastating. And in some ways, it was easy.
Some background: Blasted was first performed in January 1995, at the Royal Court Upstairs in London. Its author, Sarah Kane, was a 25-year-old newcomer. The headline of the Daily Mail’s review the next morning read, “Disgusting Piece of Filth.” It was universally condemned as vulgar and obscene, and the reviews (more than the play itself) sparked an uproar that spread into the nightly news and led to calls for revocation of funding for the Arts Council. Five years and four plays later, Sarah Kane killed herself at the age of 29. Her plays were reevaluated, and Blasted has since become part of the canon. It appears in textbooks. I have taught it to undergrads.
It is no surprise that it is rarely produced: it is not exactly a crowd pleaser, and the technical aspects are, shall we say, demanding. The first New York production was not until 2008. Full credit to Defunkt Theatre for tackling this piece, Portland’s first production. Defunkt has previously staged Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis along with other plays from her in-yer-face brethren. Blasted will probably not play again in Portland for twenty years. In retrospect, it seems oddly prescient that Defunkt staged it in the increasingly hostile and discomfiting sociopolitical climate of 2016.
The plot in brief: A bigoted, self-destructive journalist (Ian) rapes a young woman (Cate) in a Leeds hotel room and is then himself raped and mutilated by an intruding soldier when civil war breaks out in the city. If you know the play, Defunkt’s production is exactly how you would imagine it. If you don’t know the play, think of all the worst parts of Game of Thrones—yes, those parts—but taking place in your living room, with live actors. As if the Hound sucked out Sansa’s eyes and sent them to her mother in a box. That kind of play. Blasted is to True West what True West is to The House at Pooh Corner. It is Titus Andronicus, but with everything on stage and not as happy.
The original production of Blasted took place in the Royal Court Upstairs, a tiny black box that sat 60 people. Defunkt’s Backdoor Theatre—literally found at the back door of a Portland coffee shop—is perfect. I think, perhaps, there is no better way to stage this play than with absolute intimacy.
Director Paul Angelo followed Kane’s admonition to “treat all of the stage directions like lines” quite faithfully; therefore, the production followed the script beat for beat, down to details such as Cate flipping the lights on and off, the scattered flowers, and an ominously bloody towel on the floor. The pacing was excellent, with a slow build through the first scene as the domestic tension escalated, and rapid fire chaos after the disaster of scene three. I was incredibly impressed by all of the technical design. Knowing what was coming, I looked for clues (and seams), and I was still utterly surprised by the end of scene two. Sound design especially contributed to the disturbing atmosphere: loud “winter rain” covered the transitions, while a high-pitched whine created physical and emotional unease in the second half.
Here is what surprised me: 1. Ian was scared. All the time, even of Cate. This was on the page, but I never imagined it so strongly. 2. I liked Cate. I never really liked her while reading, but there was a definite point in scene two where her strength and resolve came out, and I found myself genuinely impressed. 3. There was chumminess between the Soldier and Ian, a relaxed camaraderie that I did not expect. (At least, right up until the point when the Solider threatened to rape him.) I realized that Ian was not really surprised by the Soldier; it was what he expected all the time.
All three performances were intense, raw, vulnerable. The working class London accents from Ian and Cate were impeccable and added to the authenticity. Ian’s screams of agony over his disintegrating liver were literally gut wrenching, and not the least among the night’s atrocities. All three actors were stripped bare, physically and emotionally, in a way I could not imagine sustaining for a single evening, let alone four nights a week for five weeks. Director Anne Bogart calls actors heroes; playwright Howard Barker says that actors are not quite human. Both are right. Parker, Smith, and Holznagel deserve the highest commendation.
The final moments of the play were absolutely cathartic. The best of tragedies evoke silence, a heaviness and a presence from the audience that sets in during the last five minutes of a Hamlet or a Lear. In Defunkt’s Blasted, the silence started in the middle of scene two and lasted the entire performance. The final image released a collective sigh.
So was I shocked by this disgusting piece of filth? Experiencing the play was easier than I expected. Most of the horrors I anticipated, knowing the script. Some still surprised me. My viewing companion—who knew nothing about the play except what I had old him—“had a good time.” This was not quite what I expected to hear. But then it struck me: This play is twenty years old. Since 1995, we have had 9-11. We have had 7-7. In this country, we have mass shootings literally every day. In 1995, Kane was writing about Bosnia. Today, she would be writing about Syria or ISIL. The world, essentially, has not changed. (Indeed, Ian’s xenophobia would not be amiss under a Trump presidency.) If anything, Blasted feels more familiar, more plausible, and that is very much not a good thing for the world.
My only disappointment was that the house, small as it was, was nearly empty. This is one of the boldest productions that you will ever see with a play that transformed British (and American) theatre history. It is not especially pleasant. It is not a play for your mother or your kids. It is not neatly packaged for your consumption and viewing pleasure. As Ian says, it is a story “no one wants to hear.” But it is necessary.
So to Defunkt Theatre, to the actors, the director, and Sarah Kane, I say, in Ian’s words: Thank you.