Ticketmaster Summer in Stages

Blasted

Sarah Kane
Soho Rep. Theater, New York
(2008)

Production photo

Half an hour into Blasted, I felt I was doing well. Ian, a journalist in his late fifties, had raped Cate, a mentally disabled girl. (Actually, he had bitten her vagina till it bled but that only emerged later). Blasted is notoriously shocking and I had known it would be tough to watch. I congratulated myself on my viewing stamina.

But as Ian got his comeuppance in the play's second half, the gruesome nature of events started to make me feel very unwell indeed. By the time Ian, starving, took a bite out of a baby that Cate had buried, I was trying my best to avoid having to make a hasty exit of the auditorium. And I wasn't the only one. I heard the girl beside me whisper, "I'm going to be sick". The man on my left held his partner's hand tightly and covered his eyes for much of the play.

Sarah Kane's Blasted is horrific, and famous for being so. Yet Sarah Benson's production at the Soho Rep. Theater is completely booked out.

For all its violence Blasted is intellectual, carefully structured and allusive. The first half mirrors, or rather, upends, the second. And after the soldier blinds Ian, the journalist's gouged eyes are evocative of Oedipus.

The play certainly has its flaws. The latter part becomes crowded as the atrocities pile up. But this production, the New York premiere of Blasted, is well worth seeing, if you have the stomach for it.

The action starts off in a cheap hotel room in Leeds. The set has light curtains that give the room a greenish glow. In the second half of the play, the hotel room is turned upside-down. Leeds has become Bosnia. The soldier arrives and attacks Ian with convincing brutality. No matter how much you dislike Ian for his cruelty to Cate, you will pity him for his suffering.

Members of the audience are drawn into the play even if it's against their will. Between acts, the lights go out completely. The sound of rain pervades the theatre, rattling loudly like machine-gun fire. At the Soho Rep. it was claustrophobic. We sat in the pitch black, some of us feeling slightly panicky, wondering what would happen next.

Blasted, with its onstage nudity and violence, must be gruelling for actors. They do an excellent job in this production, particularly Reed Birney as Ian, whose part includes full physical exposure and what looked like a pretty realistic portrayal of the experience of male rape. In Cate, Marin Ireland creates a delicate portrait of a girl who is mentally unwell but has a strong moral sense. Louis Cancelmi, the soldier, has a physical stature and white wild eyes that make him especially terrifying. Unfortunately he described the tortures he had performed in war a little too quickly, lessening the impact of his terrible list.

This opening night performance was marred by technical problems. In the middle of the play, the lights came on while stage technicians fiddled around with the set. Their activities gave the audience a welcome breather, but I felt sorry for the actors, draped on stage before the harshest scene. The play normally runs straight through without an interval, and that is part of the point. The audience, like the actors, is trapped. You cannot change the TV channel or leave the room to escape the violence.

If you're looking for light entertainment on a Saturday evening, Blasted is not the play for you. It compels you to confront the worst of your fears, and the worst of what, at the back of your mind, you know may be happening to someone, somewhere. The Soho Rep production puts these fears right before you in terrifying and (somehow) occasionally funny detail. It's a hard, even traumatising, theatre-going experience. We are lucky this is the closest we'll probably ever come to such a nightmare.

Reviewer: Frieda Klotz