Oxford Stage Company
The song says that "love hurts". In Cleansed, it doesn't so much hurt as maim and kill. It is now seven years since this shocking play first appeared on stage at the Royal Court. In the subsequent period, Sarah Kane established herself as one of the most significant writers of her day, rather like a theatrical Damien Hirst, and took her own life.
Sean Holmes has now revived the play, that also saw a version in Edinburgh in 2004, for Oxford Stage. As a director who trained at the Orange Tree and learned the art of allowing an audience in the round to see everything, he should have known better than to set up the Arcola as he has.
The theatre is an old warehouse or factory and easily becomes a large, unfriendly Black Box. However, it also contains large black metal pillars and this means that for pretty much everybody in the house, some part of the action will have been lost. For the squeamish, this might be no bad thing.
The shock that made Miss Kane's name starts early as Paul Brennen playing almost-doctor Tinker fuels his patient Graham's addiction with an injection of heroin into the only vein left operating, in his eye. This finishes off the young man played by Garry Collins.
Six months on, his still-grieving sister Grace comes to Tinker's madhouse to get Graham's clothes. These have to be removed from their mentally deficient current occupant, Robin.
In tandem with the story of the siblings, gay lovers Carl and Rod begin to explore their relationship. Toby Dantzic as the former vows permanence, while flighty Rod already sees past the relationship.
Having witnessed these people and their different types of love, happiness soon flies away. Grace remains in Tinker's asylum and, possibly aided by drugs, finds her brother's spirit kindred and his ghostly body passionate. She is much loved as Robin is smitten and even Tinker falls, though he is happier relieving his passion with a peep-show prostitute.
This is a true dystopian vision and, soon, people are whipped, bodily parts hacked off willy-nilly and death has its way.
In some respects, this version can be seen as Cleansed cleansed. While the sex scenes are graphic, compared with the original the torture is sanitised. The whip is invisible and apart from a joke plastic hand, the amputations are also unseen. This changes the effect of the play, some might think for the better. More questionable are two excessively long scenes in which little happens, very very slowly.
Overall though, with good acting from Brennen, Dantzic and Polly Frame as Grace, this is a reminder of what Sarah Kane was capable of achieving and brings out the pain of the unavailing search for elusive love well.
With Phaedra's Love opening at the Barbican later in the month, her work shows no sign of losing its popularity. Like Hirst's gory images, they have much to offer as an oblique comment on the society that we live in today.
Reviewer: Philip Fisher