Emma Geliot's picture

 Pallasca Photography Blasted - Christian Patterson, Simon Nehan photo: Pallasca Photography

How do we process brutality and how does a time-shift or the presentation of that brutality affect our consumption of it as a viewer? Emma Geliot considers a play taken out of its time.

I had spent an odd day receiving violence on a seismic scale that started at ten and didn t really waver before I got to Porter s bar for the first production in Cardiff s newest theatre space.

In the afternoon I d be been to revisit Mirza & Butler s The Unreliable Narrator at Chapter in Cardiff, specifically to spend time with their filmed perspective, or rather multiple perspectives, of the 2008 Mumbai bombings.

The dual screen film uses real time audio of the telephone conversations between a remote controller in Pakistan and the ten terrorists, set on causing maximum carnage combined with CCTV footage. The blurry images were inter-spliced with the Bollywood version (film makers were already bidding for the rights to make the movie before the corpses were cold). Add to this recorded interviews with one of the surviving (later executed) terrorists and, in another layer, a narrated text that begins as convincing news reporting but slides into subjective language, underscored by the subtitles that have subtle emotive adjectives added by the narration. Listening to the command to kill the hostages by sitting them up and shooting them in the back of the head was chilling to say the least.

So, this was the baggage I took with me to the first production in the new theatre space at Porter s Bar, Cardiff. Sarah Kane s Blasted at The Other Room is not for the squeamish. It portrays, from almost the very beginning, levels of violence and abuse, sliding into downright barbarism and brutality as the ninety minutes count down to an inevitably unhappy end.

Blasted was written at a time (1993-1995) when we were only just beginning to be exposed to the aspects of war that render men into brutes and women into so much collateral damage. The Bosnian and Rwandan genocides would have been raw in the public s mind and the Northern Ireland peace process was still some way off. Far away and close to home extreme violence was beamed into our homes over the teatime beans on toast. Before then, everything had been filtered, censored, or sanitised according to prevailing mores. But, in the mid-nineties, there were bodies everywhere and atrocities on what seemed like a daily basis.

Since then we seem to have moved into a state of constant fear; the terror threat has been raised fromSubstantial toSevere by the UK Government and violence seems woven into the fabric of our existence. So how does something written when we were still capable of reeling play out now?

Kane s play explores violence from the personal (rape, child abuse) to a kind of universal exploration of capacity for violence, for becoming animal and de-sensitised. When first performed it was vilified by critics, and then reconsidered in the wake of Kane s suicide in 1999. The pressure to tread a critical path with this knowledge is intense but this is my response to what I saw tonight.

The action starts in a posh hotel in Leeds - there s art on the wall (a kind of horrible Rothko-does-a-sunset art), champagne on ice, roses in a vase, crisp sheets and fancy scatter cushions. The soundtrack (composed by Nick Gill, sound design by Dyfan Jones) tinkles moodily as we, the audience, shuffle into position for the next ninety minutes.

 Pallasca Photography Blasted - Louise Collins, Christian Patterson photo: Pallasca Photography

Enter Cate (Louise Collins) and Ian (Christian Patterson). An odd couple she young, vulnerable with something un-pinpoint-able about her speech pattern that strikes an odd chord somewhere. He, on the other hand is old, overweight and, from the outset, swigging gin like pop. He also has a holster with a gun, strapped across his body. Quite quickly it s possible to pin the location as Leeds. Well that s all right then the Yorkshire Ripper aside, Leeds is safe and home, sort of.

The scene is set for a romantic liaison but it s soon clear that this is not what Cate is here for. In an almost thrown away line, Ian says something about how Cate is grown up now, revealing that their relationship goes back many years. Something twangs in the back of my mind. At this point I want to get to the bottom of this relationship why is she there with this horrible man, who is effortlessly offensive in his language, which vomits hatred over the black, the gay the disabled? Why was she ever with him? But I am distracted by the too-newness of his holster and when, quite early on, he gets out the gun, it is so obviously plastic too light, too clean that the moment to pass into the narrative, to immerse, is lost.

 Pallasca Photography Blasted - Christan Patterson, Louise Collins photo: Pallasca Photography

Theatre is essentially about convincing lying. There s an onionskin s distance between reality and convincing artifice, suspended belief and the plunge into another world, and yet the most trivial things can make the transition impossible. For me it was the gun and the business with the gun. I couldn t believe it (and I used to shriek when my sons pointed their toy guns at each other). And because I couldn t believe it, couldn t believe that the holster had been next to the chest of a self-confessed stinky man, I couldn t cross the onionskin. It seems trivial to dwell on something so small, but convincing heft, when so much other detail has been attended to, is key. Later, the soldier s gun is also obviously a toy and the baby a bundle of something light and not human. But I digress.

If the whole play had been an unraveling of this dysfunctional and imbalanced relationship, between a world-weary hack and a na ve epileptic, I would have been satisfied to watch a slow exposure. Why is Ian a journalist for a local paper covering human-interest stories, now an assassin? How did that happen? Why has he never noticed Cate s epilepsy before? Was it triggered by the trauma of his abuse of her when she was younger? While what comes later is graphic to the point where I felt my gorge rise, the rape of Cate by Ian is implied and all the more distressing for it. Sometimestell don t show is more effective.

But there is a lot of showing on-set buggery, eyeballs sucked out, cannibalism of a recently deceased baby and showing through telling as the hotel room shifts to a war zone. Ian falls into the clutches of the solider (Simon Nehan) who wangles his way into the hotel room (which is still in Leeds). Cate, pretending to wash off the traces of rape, escapes through the bathroom window while Ian deals with a solider who will probably want to kill him at some point. With much waving about of the plastic guns the two men settle into a dialogue that pulls out all the remaining stops in scenes designed to shock.

Then the hotel is blasted by a bomb (hence the title) and the soldier s relentless description of the atrocities he has witnessed and participated, or been complicit, in is vile, graphic, but I wonder to what end? To show us that war is brutalising? Surely we know that. To shock us out of our cosy bubble? We re already numb with information and images that we can t erase. There is something buried in here about power and the shifts in power at the end Ian is reliant on Cate but it doesn t run a natural course, is stilted, juddery and I am unconvinced at the events that lead to the soldier s suicide after he brutalised and blinded Ian.

 Pallasca Photography Blasted - Louise Collins photo: Pallasca Photography

When Cate returns with a rescued (but unconvincing) baby in her arms, the dynamic in their relationship begins to shift. His power is gone. The baby dies and while she prostitutes herself to get food, he eats the recently interred corpse of the baby (finding it a little too easily, I felt, for a man who is so recently blinded). Cate returns with food and finds Ian in the grave she has made for the, by now slightly gnawed, baby. She feeds him from a new position of hard-won power (really hard won, blood runs down her legs from the negotiations that provided the food) and he thanks her. The end.

It s impossible to gauge how I d have felt about this play in 1995 and without the suitcase of shock I carried in with me from my afternoon s excursion. It s also impossible to know what the mature Sarah Kane might have written. There are seeds in this play that could have borne fruit later on and, after all, she was little more than a student when she started writing this project. Nowadays there s an expectation that a degree in the arts makes for an instant professional on graduation, but craft is learned by a process of trial, error and reflection. Blasted lacks the nuances and subtleties that come with observation over time

The critics reaction to the first outing for this play must have been terribly damaging for Kane, but, had she graduated now, perhaps the desire to shock would have been tempered by the fact that nowadays we are beyond shock when it comes to the brutality of war and the effects of terrorism. Now it is the human story, one we can relate to on a personal level, that brings it home, underscores the horror. If the play had been broken down, the soldier s tale from lover to brute; Cate s relationship with Ian, or Ian s shift from Sheffield reporter to International killer would have made for stronger narrative trajectories and provided their own more convincing depth charges of shock.

Maybe I m jaded by too much exposure to the realities of the human capacity to inflict harm. Thirteen years after Blasted was performed at The Royal Court I saw Thomas Hirschhorn s The Incommensurable Banner at Fabrica in Brighton18 metres log and 4 metres high, a collage of the images ofcollateral damage sent down the line by embedded journalists at the sharp end of war zones. It was overwhelming. It was too much. Visitors reeled out of the space. That s the full-on, unmitigated reality. Mirza & Butler highlight the multiple realities and perspectives of violence while Kane was on the path towards mediating it towards a human response, but not quite there yet.

All of that said, Blasted was a statement of intent by the team that makes up The Other Room. There is certainly room for theatre that gives its audiences a jolt or an intensely intimate experience just look at how much it has made me think. The staging and sound was imaginative and felt largely right (up close it s possible to see the detail and the gaps), while the director (Kate Wasserberg) and the cast did what they could with thinly sketched characters and the playwright s youthful desire to confront and to pile too much into ninety minutes. We need theatre that provokes, that makes us think, whatever the flaws, and this was certainly a chance to reassess my personal view on many different things,

I look forward to seeing what comes next and think that The Other Room is going to be a vital new ingredient to the Welsh theatre scene.

Blasted is part of the Life in Close Up season at The Other Roomat Porter s Cardiff until 07 March 2015

The Unreliable Narrator, Mirza & Butler s contribution to Artes Mundi 6 is at Chapter, Cardiff until Sunday 22 February