Cleansed by Sarah Kane

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Sarah Kane wrote five plays and a short film and killed herself at the age of 28. Cleansed is her third work. It has just finished at the National Theatre, where five people fainted during the first six performances. Theatre PR teams would kill or maim for such publicity, which is somehow appropriate. Killing and maiming takes up quite a lot of Cleansed as a doctor/torturer (called Tinker) performs various psychotic experiments on inmates. In my copy, Kane’s play is set in a university but Katie Mitchell’s set seems more like a run-down hospital or prison. That’s far from the most radical divergence: in Mitchell’s production, Tinker kills himself after murdering the Woman. In a play with so much violence, this seems par for the course really – except that the text I have is ‘regarded as the definitive version in all respects’, and in it Tinker declares his love for the Woman and they both survive. That changes things radically: it means there is hope of redemption through love (however grisly the characters) – but in Mitchell’s version there is none. Choices, choices. While it is a complacent error to assume Kane’s art mirrored her life, what exactly was it that drove her to put these extraordinary things onto paper? In a 1995 interview, following the opening of her first play, Blasted, she is quoted as saying: “I have no interest in trying to manipulate people’s emotions or opinions. I’m simply trying to tell the truth about human behaviour as I see it. Everyone’s reactions to that will always be entirely different.” This seems valuable to me. I like Strictly Come Dancing as much as the next child, but I don’t want to watch it all the time. Kane felt, presumably, compelled to write: she had to write in this way, about these subjects. You don’t produce work like that to gain favour, or ratings. One stage direction in Cleansed reads: ‘The rats carry Carl‘s feet away.’ That’s a tester for audiences used to the naturalistic. (Spoiler: the rats don’t in Mitchell’s production). For all the controversy, Kane represented violence honestly and without any possibility of titillation. My eyes have never been so riveted to the stage.

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