I was going to start this review by saying Sarah Kane’s Cleansed has lost a little of its shock value in the 18 years since it premiered. In this time the phrase “torture porn” has entered the popular vernacular and even your mum has probably seen The Human Centipede. But in Cleansed’s debut week, five people fainted, one required medical attention and a further 40 walked out, suggesting the National Theatre audience is still positively Victorian in its sensibilities.
In fairness, this is the most gut-wrenching and stomach-turning of all of Kane’s plays – none of which are a walk in the park – stacked so high with physical and psychological torture that it threatens to collapse in a big messy pile of severed members and broken dreams.
The play consists of two interconnecting stories taking place in the peeling asylum of your nightmares (recalling the institutions that were a frequent part of Kane’s own life before her suicide in 1999). One follows a woman who comes to collect the clothes of her drug addict brother who died there some time earlier. The other tells the story of two male lovers who appear to be forcibly enrolled in some kind of homosexuality deprogramming course and are tormented into repeatedly betraying each other.
Both threads are overseen by a sadistic, emotionless doctor called Tinker, who in the very first scene injects a man in the eye. This feels like light relief compared to what lies ahead, which encompasses rape, castration, incest, suicide, the chopping off of body parts and – perhaps the most viscerally portrayed – force feeding. At one point a character says: “If you know it’s coming you can prepare for it.” He’s wrong: the repetition is the hardest part, the crushing realisation that the worst case scenario is about to get even worse.
The audience shares in the cruel and unusual punishment: sudden bangs make you jump, painful static plagues your ears, blood and spit and faeces turn your stomach. This is no passive experience: everyone undertakes their own personal endurance test in the face of relentless violent imagery. Yet amidst the anguish and agony are moments of tenderness: flowers sprout through the charred stage, a woman makes love to the man of her dreams (although that man is the ghost of her dead brother). Like a sunflower growing through concrete, love finds a way, even amid unspeakable horror.
But for my money, Cleansed never quite reaches the heights of Kane’s earlier play Blasted, which the Hammersmith Lyric staged an excellent production of in 2010. That work is split into two distinct acts, the first of which is relatively conventional, acting as a counterpoint to the degradation and rape and baby-eating that follows. It’s a neat dissection of theatrical form, the play unravelling in tandem with the mind of its protagonist: it earns its moments of utter depravity. Cleansed, on the other-hand, screams abuse in your face through a rolled up newspaper from the first minute and never lets up.
That’s not to say it’s simplistic: in terms of staging and structure it’s Kane’s most experimental work, with the lines between reality and nightmare so blurred as to be meaningless. Hooded figures march in slow motion, time folds and warps, men become women, ghosts become flesh.
But the unrelenting mutilation and ethereal, nightmarish quality of the play leaves little room for its characters, who become two-dimensional vessels upon which torture is meted out. Without an emotional connection the violence is just gratuitous, an exercise in pushing boundaries just because those boundaries exist to be pushed.
A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing is the deep, suffocating Yang to Cleansed’s fiery Yin. Annie Ryan’s play, based on a book by Eimear McBride, debuted at the Dublin Theatre Festival in 2014 to rapturous reviews; this Young Vic production shows why.
The one-woman play – produced with neither set nor props – tells the story of an unnamed young girl growing up in a small Irish town. Before she was born, her elder brother almost died from a brain tumour, and she’s never been able to escape the long shadow cast by the event, her very existence a distraction from the beloved miracle-child. When emotional trauma and abuse and self harm creep into her life, nobody is there to notice, except for the queue of predatory men ready to take advantage.
Much of the play is about sex and how it’s used against women, be it the insults thrown at those who enjoy it, or the violence used against those who reject unwanted advances.
While it sounds unbearably bleak, the central character is so likeable, so lovingly crafted, so unwilling to wallow in her pain, and the writing so wryly funny, that it wears its themes lightly. It also burns slowly, with the opening third filled with sardonic observations about Irish life: the overbearing mother, the pretentious aunt, the layabout brother.
The dialogue (which in the novel takes place entirely in the reader’s head), is a Joycean stream of consciousness, with Aoife Duffin flitting between the myriad characters, playing out both sides of conversations, bleeding from person to person, year to year. It’s a mark of an exceptional performance that every character feels rounded, with subtle nuances clearly defining each one.
It’s a punishing role to take on, both for the harrowing nature of the material and the sheer verbal dexterity required. It’s so intense, in fact, that it can be a little destabilising: there were times when I was so struck by the terrifying nature of the role that I became fixated on whether Duffin would choke under the pressure. She never did, of course, although when emerging to take a bow, she looked shattered, ready to collapse into a million little pieces. To repeat it night after night must feel like a Sisyphean task.
If Cleansed is like a tooth being pulled without anaesthetic, A Girl Is a Half Formed Thing is a slow, silent descent into despair, a beautiful, choking sob of a play crowned by a truly exceptional performance.
First published in City A.M.