It starts in a sleazy hotel room. An older man enters with a much younger woman. From the moment they walk in, it’s uncomfortable. The man, Ian (David Woods) is all kinds of gross, his relationship with Cate (Eloise Mignon) is increasingly disturbing and unease hangs over their every interaction.
Unease is just the beginning however in a play that escalates rapidly into outright horror. Blasted is not for the faint hearted. The first work by English playwright Sarah Kane, when it was first performed in 1995 it was one of the most controversial things to ever happen on a London stage. This rendition, directed by Anne-Louise Sarks, is shocking even in a time when we are relatively inured to the dark and outré.
It could have a list of content warnings as long as your arm. Anything horrible you can imagine is probably in this play, plus some stuff you would never imagine because you’re a nice person who goes to the internet to read about theatre. Even after the scene between Ian and Cate plays out to its explicit and horrifying end, the play continues to up the ante. Reality fractures – quite literally courtesy of some incredible stagecraft by designer Marg Horwell – and the play plunges into a lurid nightmarescape of ever worsening violence. It is as if the play you started watching has been air dropped into a war zone.
As grotesque as it is, it is grimly riveting. It elicits powerful emotions from sadness to anger to physical disgust and at times I find myself shielding my eyes and curling up in my seat as if wounded by what I have seen; and yet I stay with the play, I stay in its world and don’t switch off. That speaks volumes for the power of the script and its execution, that it can so thoroughly appal me and yet keep me hooked. When it really is too hard to watch, as it often is, there is a projection of slow motion video above the stage to distract the eye, though in a subtle and effective move this is turned off some time toward the end so you can not look away from the ghastly denouement.
Much of this production’s success comes down to the adept directorial touch of Anne-Louise Sarks, who has previously demonstrated her ability to turn confronting material into exceptional art with pieces such as Thyestes and By Their Own Hands. Sarks has an ability to draw very truthful depictions of extreme emotion from her actors. The performances in Blasted achieve an almost repellent level of realism, down to the last grunt, pant and whimper. It doesn’t feel like seeing actors portray sensationalist content, but genuinely like witnessing humans in extreme conditions.
Kane’s intent with violence in her work was to make the audience experience the traumatic nature of it, to bridge the gap between knowing intellectually that violence happens and feeling its impact. This intent is brilliantly realised in this production, that makes the reality of violence in all its forms – be it physical, verbal or sexual, interpersonal, military or internal – keenly felt.
Blasted isn’t an experience to go through lightly, it’s an emotional onslaught that will leave you craving some form of after-care, but this is as expertly staged an example of shock theatre as you could wish for. For all it’s grotesquerie it manages to reach a tender, even hopeful, conclusion. Through its excess of horror it emerges as both a masterful piece of theatre and a demonstration of how shock can be used not just for reaction’s sake but also to serve a powerful artistic purpose.
Malthouse Theatre presents
by Sarah Kane
Director Anne-Louise Sarks
Venue: Malthouse Theatre | 113 Sturt Street, Southbank VIC
Dates: 24 August – 16 September 2018
Bookings: (03) 9685 5111 | malthousetheatre.com.au
Note: This production contains graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence and nudity. Strictly for audiences 18+.