Friday, 22 February 2008.
Stepping into the lobby of the Queens Hotel in Leeds last week, I and the rest of the audience of twelve who'd gathered together for a common purpose felt a strange combination of excitement and fear. We'd been forewarned to expect "scenes of nudity, violence, sexual violence, and defecation." But surely it can't be that extreme. We're here to see a play after all -- even if it is the infamous Blasted by Sarah Kane.
I inquire as to where we're meant to go. There's no signage anywhere, no indication that we're at a theatrical performance. "Room 807," I'm told by the porter on duty. "Just up the elevator, turn left, and then turn left again."
I and my fellow audience members reach the room, expecting to be greeted with detailed instructions. Instead, we drop our coats and bags off haphazardly in one of the suite's two main rooms. A phone rings moments later, and an attendant relays directions to us, supposedly from the hotel concierge. We're to wear a mask resembling a bedsheet, she tells us. And if we experience distress during the performance, we're to raise our hands.
Minutes later, actors burst into the hotel room, launching into Sarah Kane's landmark drama of cruelty. When Blasted, Kane's first play, opened at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in January 1995, it caused quite a ripple within the theatre community. Never before had such brutal violence, frank language, sexuality, and militaristic brutality come together to such potent effect. The unofficial movement she started, In-Yer-Face Theatre, would be carried on by Mark Ravenhill, Jez Butterworth, and others after her suicide in February 1999.
But it was Blasted that started it all, and this production, executed by young Leeds production company nineteen;twentynine understands the potency of Kane's drama. Directed by Felix Mortimer and featuring a rotating cast of actors for the week's four performances per day, the tone of the production is spot-on: the naturalistic hotel lighting, the blue glow from the bathroom, the sounds of gunfire rattling away in the background during the play's two devastating final scenes, the use of a flashlight for minimalist lighting later in the proceedings. It's all terribly well done.
The cast that I saw, Martin Wickham as Ian, Steph De Whalley as Cate, and Ash Layton as the Soldier, were all well-suited for their parts. Wickham magnificently captures the cruelty of a man stringing along a not-quite-all-there Cate, ultimately harming her beyond repair. And Ash Layton, displaying an angular grimace that could kill, shakes things up in the play's second and third parts in the role of the soldier.
It's a clever concept, a site-specific Blasted, the kind of gleeful gimmick frequent theatergoers dream of. It could even be argued that the voyeuristic perspective of eavesdropping on these thoroughly flawed characters within their own environs seems absolutely fitting in showing an audience the full extent of their cruelty. But it's also sadly a result of the translation from stage to suite that someone forgot the elements of magical realism that Kane's included in the text.
This isn't just the tale of two ex-lovers in a hotel suite for the night. It's about the bursting in of modern warfare on private lives, embodied by the soldier's arrival, and the comparison that this draws between Ian's transgressions upon individuals and soldiers' upon humanity. Kane's writing gets a bit heavy-handed at times, but this is theatre intended to shock, and shock it does. Perhaps, however, a level of distance is required for the piece to have its fullest impact. Can we properly process this shift from reality to a more heightened form when we're so close to the actors and the action?
By the end of the play, the audience is plainly in shock. We're left peering with rapt anticipation into the bathroom, where the final moments of the play are unwisely placed outside the vantage points of most of the audience members.
There's obviously not much that could have been done in regards to setting. After all, the room can't be altered for a mere one-week run. But concessions could have been made for the presence of an audience. The removal of one of two out-of-place flatscreen TVs would have created more seating space for those audience members who really needed it. And more sensitivity to the physical inclusion of the piece's spectators would have created a more productive interaction between actor and audience. Along the way, the audience has been fighting for proper perspectives on the action, which uneasily shifts between the suite's two awkwardly divided rooms. Perhaps the hotel setting is ultimately just too cumbersome to contain such an ambitious project.
This is ultimately a production that delivers a mixed bag of results. On one hand, there's something to be said for a play so brutal being played out within feet -- or even inches -- of you. And the experience is certainly an unforgettable one, with acting and environmental elements that are accomplished. The anticlimax of the ending's awkward setting and the racing-back-and-forth nature of the experience, however, got in the way of what would have been more satisfying, if still inherently flawed, production from an enthusiastic company that shows promise for the future of daring regional English theatre.