The lasting legacy of Sarah Kane’s genius

As the controversial play Blasted opens the Sarah Kane season in Sheffield, Theatre Correspondent Nick Ahad speaks to director Richard Wilson and lead actor Martin Marquez.

Martin Marquez as Ian, Jessica Barden as Cate in Blasted.  Photograph by Mark Douet.
Martin Marquez as Ian, Jessica Barden as Cate in Blasted. Photograph by Mark Douet.

It became best known because of the torrent of terrible reviews that met it, when it first hit the London stage. The Daily Mail called it a “disgusting feast of filth” and the London Evening Standard described the final scenes as a “systematic trawl through the deepest pits of human degradation”.

Sarah Kane’s Blasted quickly became the stuff of theatrical legend. Interviewing the cast and director of the latest production of Blasted, which has just opened in Sheffield, there is something of a dance: who will be the first to actually describe some of the events that occur at the end of Sarah Kane’s 1995 play that led to such hostile reviews? Not me.

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Martin Marquez, who plays journalist Ian, is the first to openly describe some of the events of the play that the more coy might simply allude to. Fair warning: I am about to describe events in a play that became one of the most controversial, in part due to the violence it portrays, of the past two decades. “As an actor you can’t emotionally go to a place where you are raped by a soldier with a gun,” says Marquez, candidly.

“In The Crucible (at the West Yorkshire Playhouse last autumn, in which Marquez played John Proctor) you go through those actual emotions and experiences of the character, but you can’t do that in a play like this.”

Richard Wilson, the director of Blasted, also articulates some of the horrors audiences will see on stage. “When she writes about eyes being sucked out of someone’s head, she took that from an incident of football hooliganism, so she was actually taking from real life,” he says. In the interviews with the cast, no-one mentions the fact that a character eats a dead baby on stage. It all accounts for some of the reasons the initial reviewers of Blasted, twenty years ago, failed to see past the sensation of watching the virtually unwatchable and see the brilliance of a script so taut you can bounce a coin off it.

Sarah Kane’s short and brilliant career as a playwright has, since those first reviews, been thoroughly re-examined. Michael Billington, no less, committed to print that he had got it hopelessly wrong in his first review of Blasted.

Her work and entire oeuvre is currently being put under the microscope in a brilliant season of work at Sheffield that will see all of her writings performed at the city’s three theatres.

The opening work of the Sarah Kane season is Wilson’s take on Blasted. “I can see how the man in the street might take it as gratuitous, mistakenly considered as violence for violence’s sake,” he says.

“But when you look around at the world and the violence that is happening, you realise this play could have been written yesterday. Twenty years on from when we first came across her writing, it seems absolutely right that we should be looking at her work again. She has become one of our major writers.”

Wilson, perhaps still best known for playing Victor Meldrew, has become recognised as one of the UK’s best directors of new work. He admits he always wanted to work at the Royal Court, “a left-wing theatre that concentrated on new writing” and for the past several years has been associate director at Sheffield.

With Blasted, he admits, he doesn’t always know how to tackle the script.

“We’ve got to the point where the actors are on their feet and that is an exciting moment, because you start to see how the play feels and moves,” he says.

“Sometimes the actors ask me a question about the script and I simply have to say that I don’t know and we have to do it and trust what Kane is saying with the script.”

There are three characters in Blasted, Ian, a journalist for a Yorkshire newspaper, Cate, a young woman who appears to be in some sort of relationship with Ian. They are in a hotel room in Leeds when, at an audacious point in the script, the walls are blown off and a soldier enters the room. They are then in a war-torn country and the soldier enters the fray.

Marquez says: “It’s really difficult to explain it to people, which is why the programme seems so vague – it says something like ‘a man and a woman are in a hotel room, suddenly there is a knock at the door and their world turns upside down’.” Which is, essentially, what happens. But what about the other stuff, the violence that made some people physically retch and many more leave the theatre on the play’s debut?

“She wanted to write a play about rape, which is what she was doing, but then she became affected by the war in Croatia and wanted to address that,” he says. “So she did the thing that I think all great artists do and she experimented with the form and used a dramatic device that hadn’t been seen before. She kept the characters in the same time frame but just moved the locations.

“It allowed her to talk about some of the horrific things that happen in the world, both in the world around us and in places that we think are unconnected to us, that we don’t have to face every day.”

Since its initial critical mauling, Blasted has been revisited, restaged and many opinions have been revised – not least the opinion of what Kane was doing with the play. The first draft was something of a beast and it was whittled over several years until she had a script that was more white space than black lines on the page.

Wilson says: “Yes, she is commenting on the rape camps of Srebrenica and the violence that happens around the world that we don’t have in our faces every day. For me one of the most fascinating aspects of the play is the relationship between Ian and Cate and what exactly is happening there (it remains ambiguous).” Similarly, Marquez thinks there is much below the violence. “It’s about how there can be love sometimes in the most brutal of situations. It’s about a lot of things.”

There is one final question, about which there is no coyness. I ask it of Marquez.

Is it a feast of filth or a work of genius? “Work of genius. No question.”