The work of the late Sarah Kane has been belatedly recognised as that of genius, even by some of those who were her fiercest critics when her first play was staged by the Royal Court in 1995.
There are multiple rapes, suicide, cannibalism in that work, so perhaps the general hysteria of 1995 was understandable. Yet seeing Blasted anew last night in a new production at the Soho Theatre, it is clear that this is in no way shock for the sake of shock. Without the distancing effect of the actor-delivered stage directions and the matter-of-fact delivery this could just be Hollywood-style sexploitation, without the defracting, deceiving mist of the camera lens. But never for a second does it feel like that.
Certainly the relationship between the young, highly vulnerable Cate (Jennifer-Jay Ellison) and the middle-aged, cynical, violent Ian is shocking, but its very complexity is its best defence. Kane explains Ian, presents him as human, while never excusing his actions. And in the second half, as the city of Leeds falls to some unnamed invading force, we are in a more surreal world, yet a world that has a feel of truth.
And despite this careful distancing effect, all of these obvious Brechtian devices, these are characters, even the nameless Soldier, with whom one immediately feels sympathy and identification. They are never simple, never predictable. This is, simply, a great play, its language masterful in its rawness. Who could top: "I loved Stella until she became a witch and fucked off with a dyke"?
Yet the new production goes further, finds something new, and newly shocking, in the script. It is by the Graeae Theatre Company, which brings together disabled and non-disabled actors, writers, and audiences. So it is that two of the main three actors in this production of Blasted are visibly, significantly, disabled. And that presents the polite, carefully cultivated sensibilities of the average audience member, and reviewer, with a dilemma. We've got used to colour-blind casting – barely turn a hair at a black Roman emperor or Tudor monarch.
But here, in the brutal, dangerous world of Kane's shadow Leeds, what are we supposed to do? Director Jenny Sealey eventually makes it clear, in one disturbing scene of male rape: we are supposed to acknowledge the fact of the disability, to accept it, to deal with it.
There's an additional layer added too, with a video background in which translators, Neil Fox, Daryl Jackson and Adele Walker, present, some of the time, the dialogue and stage directions in sign language. Some of the time. At other times they are independent actors; perhaps savouring a cigarette and watching sardonically as the little creatures before them play out their inevitable fate.
The acting too is almost faultless: Ellison as Cate is in turns achingly vulnerable and dangerously mischievous and knowing. Gerard McDermott makes a fine job of ensuring that the middle-aged, hard-drinking, tormented journalist Ian is far more than cliche, and David Toole as Soldier does an astonishing job of conveying both menace and the nature of his tortured, screaming soul. And the Soldier’s disability is entirely logical in the age in which IED has become as much a part of the language as WMD.
The media world of the 21st century has brought us considerably closer than we were even in 1995 to the realities of war, particularly mindlessly inhuman civil war conflicts that characterise parts of the developing world. Kane's bringing this world of the Lord's Resistance Army, of the mutilation of civilians in Sierra Leone, of the rape camps of Bosnia, all too literally home. It makes Kane’s “occupied” Leeds less surreal, and perhaps more powerful, her insight into the human condition more visibly acute.
So a decade on, Kane’s play is even more powerful than when it was written. And unless the world, and the human race, change a very great deal, you feel that this Kane play will last as very little theatre truly lasts. If there's one theatrical work of the past couple of decades that might be still be attracting audiences centuries hence, grabbing them and twisting their guts into a ball of fearful understanding, then this may be it.
The production continues until February 3 at the Soho Theatre. (With online booking.)