Sarah Kane was just 23 when she blasted onto the theatrical map with Blasted. In February 1999, six years and a total of five plays later, she took leave not just of the theatre but of life itself, when she committed suicide. Her final play, 4.48 Psychosis, produced posthumously, is like a suicide note, a brooding incantation of the moment in the morning (the eponymous 4.48am) when the human spirit (or at least her own) is said to be at its lowest ebb.
Both the first and last plays were produced by the Royal Court, while Crave - virtually a poem for four isolated voices - was also seen there in between in a production by Paines Plough that transferred from the Edinburgh Festival. During the time the Royal Court was absent from Sloane Square, it also produced Kane's Cleansed at the Duke of York's, while Phaedra's Love was mounted by Notting Hill's tiny Gate Theatre. Kane's later work - which took a decidedly less confrontational and more elegiac tone than Blasted - helped to put the fury of that play into context. But how to account for the corresponding critical fury that greeted its debut?
Amends & the Unrepentant
Certainly, in returning to Blasted now, a number of critics have sought to make amends. The Daily Telegraph's Charles Spencer - who with the late Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail was largely responsible for creating the furore that resulted in tabloid headlines that originally labelled it a "disgusting feast of filth" in the first place - opened his review of the Court's current revival with the honest declaration: "Well, I was wrong." And, he continued, "Seeing the play six years on, there is no doubt that it is an impressive, and serious, piece of work. I still don't like it, but I now admire it. Kane had genuine artistic vision and great dramatic talent." He concluded: "I can only apologise to Kane's ghost for getting her so wrong the first time around. And may she now rest in peace."
On the other hand, Sheridan Morley, writing in the International Herald Tribune, remains unrepentant. Citing other dramatists who met an early end - Marlowe, Orton and the "totally forgotten" Ronald Mackenzie - he writes, "Joe Orton would probably be in constant revival even were he still around to enjoy it. Marlowe has proved still more durable. But here is a more difficult question: Would the Royal Court now be embarking on a marathon festival of all Kane's work had she not died so dramatically?"
He answers his own question: "I think not." And, proceeding to compare Blasted to another play that created a huge controversy in its original production, he asserts, "Like The Romans in Britain, it was always a terrible little play, given a brief lease on false life by the censorship debate, and when was the last time you saw that Howard Brenton drama on a professional theatre schedule? Blasted, too, is only really notable for its effects on critics, one or two of whom found it revolutionary, and the theatre-going pubic, who scarcely found it at all.... This is the work of a theatrical child who wishes to shock her elders. It has little intrinsic merit except as a horror headline grabber and a good opening line, which, when you hear it, is all too true of the play as well as its hotel setting."
That opening line - which Morley was presumably too squeamish to actually quote - is: "I've shat in better places than this". But as James Macdonald, the director of the original production of Blasted (and this revival) as well as Cleansed and 4.48 Psychosis, puts it, Kane's work caused controversy and confusion precisely because it is meant to "hit people in the gut before it hits them rationally."
This desire to "connect emotionally rather than intellectually" led to what he calls a "hideous irony", too, that the "phenomenon she wrote the play to explore, which is the way that serious subjects are reduced to stories in newspapers, was visited upon the play itself." A serious play became simply another newspaper story.
As for answering Morley's charge that there are arguably worthier writers awaiting their retrospectives, he comments, "While writers are still alive, one is always anxious to do their next play - if Sarah were alive, we would be doing hers. We're left with the five she's given us, and we felt that a number of them have not fully reached an audience." Despite selling out, the Court's original run of Blasted, was seen by little more than 1,000 people in the tiny Theatre Upstairs. (As the Court's artistic director, Ian Rickson, remarks, "Fewer people saw Blasted during its whole run than used to see The Weir in the West End in one day.") Macdonald goes on, "Sarah has been studied, performed and feted across Europe. She became a major writer with almost no one seeing the work."
At least the critical consensus now seems to have largely caught up with what Kane's peers and elders grasped rather more quickly. For Edward Bond, whose own play Saved had once been equally controversial at the Court, "Kane was easily the most important writer to come out of the Court in at least 20 years. She came from the blazing heat of a confrontation with the real world. That's the only thing that makes theatre great." Harold Pinter, meanwhile, maintains that "her plays are naked, fearful, fearsome - totally original."
And for Kane's contemporary, David Greig, each of her works was "a new step on a journey in which Kane mapped out the darkest and most unforgiving internal landscapes: of violation, loneliness, power, mental collapse and, most consistently, love." Benedict Nightingale, drama critic of the Times, agrees: "Kane wasn't fibbing when she said that Cleansed was about the power of love, or some love, to withstand just about anything. Indeed, I'd go further, and suggest that love always was one of her major themes."
It is being able to identify these and other strands that a retrospective like the Royal Court's fully affords. But it also honours a talent capable of creating a play like Blasted about which the Independent's Paul Taylor reckons, "I somehow don't think we've heard the last of Blasted's reverberations."
The Royal Court's current Sarah Kane season opened on 29 March with Blasted. It continues this week with the opening of Crave and 4:48 Psychosis, which continue in repertory until 9 June 2001. The season also includes rehearsed readings of Phaedra's Love and Cleansed.
To enter the Whatsonstage.com competition to win one of ten copies of the complete Methuen anthology of Kane's work, click here. Competition ends 17 May 2001.