Near the ending of director Katie Mitchell’s Cleansed by Sarah Kane, we are left with a clear visual image. Having got what she wanted (a phalloplasty so she can become her dead brother Graham) Grace, in this version the main protagonist, finds herself entirely alone: everyone’s gone or dead. It’s a neat summing up of one of the paradoxes of love: that it represents so much feeling and desire, yet ultimately (a little like Alex Eales' rather ambiguous set) acts within a social void. The image cleverly and terrifyingly pays homage to the idea that “the condition of love is isolation from the rest of the world” something that intrigued both Sarah Kane and George Orwell (whose Nineteen Eighty-Four influenced Cleansed).
The plot itself is artfully disengaged from the story and elliptical. As Grace finds she is drawn to and unable to leave the strange sanatorium like building to which she has come to retrieve Graham’s body, she is witness to the love experiments Tinker- here some form of commanding officer- subjects on his semi-imprisoned inmates. Lovers Rod and Carl are severely tested as Rod’s body is subjected to continuous amputation (some forms are directly taken from the crucifixions Serbian soldiers carried out on Muslims during the Bosnian War) and Robin, a young man who falls in love with Grace and becomes her shadow, is forced to ingest a whole box of chocolates he has bought her, so that he urinates uncontrollably. Disparate heightened dramatic scenes chart the Rod/Carl, Grace/Graham, Grace/ Robin and Tinker/Woman stories using language that eschews the kind of realism Sarah Kane so hated.
Katie Mitchell chooses to give us detailed explicit depictions of the violence, without the safety mask of metaphor and symbolism which has so often been used to avoid the play’s themes being buried under the rubble of the butchery. But Katie Mitchell makes a brave choice to highlight the violence and partner it with the use of slow motion. After moments of torture, or rat shooting, characters slow down their movements, as if warping time. These emotional brakes, whilst taxing on the actors’ bodies (just like the physicalities of sexual love, the irony is not lost) are opportunities to reinstate grace, tenderness or to cleanse, reinforcing Sarah Kane’s idea that love and tenderness and annihilation can go together.
The redemption theme, so oft talked about by everyone (as if it were the Holy Grail) and pursued as if it is something one must feel and understand(in the same way as everyone else) above all else by the play's end, is ambivalent. Just like the portrayal of “love”. Can redemption be gained through the dissolution of the self, which is itself a common side effect or desire of obsessive love and which we experience with Grace in her aloneness and dissolution of herself into someone else? Or is it that Tinker’s relationship with the woman (which presumably mutates to compassion) can be the only redemption? Depends, just like love, on what your definition of redemption is. Neither have to be good things or be what we would like to define as being good. Katie Mitchell gives us a choice, though. It doesn’t have to be Tinker, it can be through the loss of self- hood and finding oneself alone, which is both terrifying and not terrifying.
The ensemble all gives sustained, physical and electrifying performances. They suffer, as one should in such a play as this.
People are fainting at the portrayal of the violence. I’d rather faint more at the production’s end, though. Its central message can be read as being way more terrifying, as well as hopeful.
on at the National Theatre until 5th May in rep