This compelling Oxford Stage Company production of Sarah Kane's disturbing psycho-drama is the first since its premiere at the Royal Court in 1998. Freed from the hyped-up controversy and over-reaction which Kane and other 'in-yer-face' playwrights like Ravenhill and Neilson originally provoked in the 1990s, we can now appreciate the play for what it is: a powerful examination of both the limitations and transcendence of love in the face of extreme cruelty.
In an unspecified institution – prison, reformatory, mental hospital or science laboratory? – the sadistic Tinker (Paul Brennen) uses drugs and violence to conduct horrific experiments on the inmates to test the strength of their love for each other. After he has killed Graham (Garry Collins) with an injection of heroin into the eye, Graham's sister Grace (Polly Frame) literally takes his place, ultimately having a penis transplant. Carl (Toby Dantzic), who has promised never to betray his lover Rod (Sean Gallagher), under torture begs that Rod should be killed instead of him and successively has his tongue, hands and feet cut off.
In Kane's stark, minimalist vision all human feeling is stripped down to bare essentials, reinforced by the way all the characters shed their clothes at some point, and often take on new identities. Just as Grace takes her dead brother's clothes from the innocent Robin (Craig Gazey), whom she teaches to write, so Robin puts on her clothes in a gender-bending exchange which is just one of a series of striking visual images.
Like Blasted, Cleansed may seem to deliberately set out to shock but Kane's poetic intensity and expressionistic stagecraft shine through. Timeless and placeless, the play evokes the atrocities of genetic engineering in the Holocaust concentration camps and ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, while retaining a darkly ambivalent quality throughout. One can also see the influence of Titus Andronicus, Wozzeck and Pinter's The Hothouse, though the result is distinctively Kane in its mixture of brutality and tenderness, horror and black comedy, personal and political.
Sean Holmes's visceral production (atmospherically lit by Charles Balfour) makes full use of the Arcola's low-ceilinged cavernous space and draws fully committed performances from the cast. Brennen is an enigmatic Tinker, at once torturer and victim, who seems compelled to hurt and humiliate those who demonstrate the love of which he is incapable. Frame movingly shows how Grace subsumes her brother's personality into herself, while ultimately reaching out to Dantzic's desperate Carl. Gazey is touching as the slow-witted Robin, especially in a brilliantly nauseating scene which is enough to put you off chocolate for life.