The Theatreguide.London Review
Dorfman Theatre Spring 2016
There is a lot of passion and anger in Sarah Kane's 1998 play. But what she is so angry about – indeed, what the play is about – is considerably less evident.
To stand any chance of responding to this play ('Understanding' would not be the right word), you have to give up any expectation of plot, coherence or narrative structure and accept it as a string of stage images disconnected from meaning and from each other.
At times Katie Mitchell's production resembles nothing so much as a 1960s 'happening' (briefly trendy exercises in pure, meaningless theatre images), and there are few things less impressive than a previous generation's avant-garde.
I'm being a bit unfair. It is possible to see this play as the expressionistic projection of one character's jumbled perceptions of the outside world. In a programme note Dan Rebellato suggests it might all be the final vision of a character who dies in the first scene.
But it seems more likely to be the skewed perception of Grace, a woman who finds herself in a nightmarish institution of some sort, witnessing and being the victim of various abuses and tortures, all in the name of treatment of some sort.
She sees (or hallucinates?) men in black, some of them faceless, kill her brother with a drug overdose, sexually abuse a woman with her name, and torture and mutilate a pair of homosexual lovers to get them to betray each other, all under the direction of a man who repeatedly asserts and then denies that he is a doctor.
She herself is raped, subjected to electric shock therapy and given a sex-change operation. That last doesn't seem to upset her too much, since she has spent much of the play attempting to become her dead brother, wearing his clothes and having sex with what may or may not be his ghost.
There are a few other episodes of simulated consensual sex in the play, along with masturbation, crossdressing, lots of nudity, the forced feeding of chocolates, and dancing.
There are also flowers that spring magically out of the floor, dead rats, book burning, lots of alarm bells ringing, lots of thunder or cannon fire outside, another murder or three, and people walking slowly backwards with umbrellas.
(There have been reports of audience members walking out or even fainting from the onstage horrors, but it's hard to see why. The simulations are considerably less graphic than, say, the blinding of Gloucester in King Lear, and the one walk-out at my performance was someone openly bored by the emptiness and meaningless of it all.)
All of this almost makes some sense if you think of The Cabinet Of Doctor Caligari or I Never Promised You A Rose Garden (both of which Kane comes close to directly quoting), in which what we are seeing is not reality but the mentally unbalanced Grace's confused and distorted experience of reality.
(We can also deduce that the playwright was also thinking of Pinter's Hothouse, Orwell's 1984, and the comic routines of George Bursn and Gracie Allen at various moments in the writing.)
But even if you attempt to find more meaning in it than Kane gives you any basis for, Cleansed is too much hard work for too little reward.
It is not hard to see why Sarah Kane was so trendy twenty years ago – there's a whole Sylvia Plath quality to her work and her life – but my earlier comment about a previous generation's avant-garde might apply to her as well.
Like several characters in Cleansed, the emperor is a little too naked.
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