Review: Blasted (Styx)
Sarah Kane's seminal, controversial play is revived as part of a '90s season at the new theatre in Tottenham Hale
Up-and-coming young director Ali Pidsley's new production of Sarah Kane's 1995 debut play Blasted is fascinating in myriad ways. It's the first production in Rift Theatre's '90s Season (of three plays, and apparently some re-staged episodes of '90s sit-com Friends). The venue is new too. Styx – a bloody chilly warehouse round the corner from the forecourt of Tottenham Hale station – is exactly the sort of down-at-heel, former-industrial space that you want to see young people put Blasted on in. While it's not puritanically uncomfortable or ill-equipped, neither is it one of those pop-ups that make you wonder if the whole of London now caters solely to investment bankers.
The approach to the play itself is interesting too. It's staged almost as a clash between the methods of the radical theatrical left in the '90s and now: Generation In-Yer-Face versus Generation Millennial Snowflake. Where the script of Blasted is full of deeply uncomfortable scenes of rape and violence to demonstrate how terrible the world is, this production cleaves closely to the new orthodoxy of avoiding violence to women onstage, to demonstrate against how terrible the world is. It's a fascinating, rich tension, and having the stage directions projected on one of Styx's black walls is so pointedly theatrical in anti-theatricality that it feels quite satisfying.
The text of the play itself has also transitioned in meaning and resonance since it was first produced too. In 1995 the racist, rapist journalist, Ian, seemed almost like a cartoon of all the worst male violence; now he comes across not unlike one of the more plausible prospective parliamentary candidates of a certain single-issue UK political party. And, whereas in 1995 the character of the soldier who bursts into the Leeds hotel room was widely understood to be an exoticised fragment from the war in Bosnia, he could now just as easily be read as a soldier from Syria or ISIS. In this respect, the play starts to feel worryingly like it could easily be an illustration of the most paranoid phantasms from Trump or Farage's "clash of civilisations" rhetoric.
There are some brilliant decisions and some beautiful moments here – designer Grace Smart's destruction of the hotel room stands out. There are also some other decisions that didn't work so much (labelling a bit of wall that isn't a window as "window" makes sense; labelling a toilet that is a toilet as "toilet" seems a bit superfluous; and they could have used a chair). Overall, this is an intelligent production of the play, and one which again confirms Kane's play as a timeless classic, apparently in spite of itself.
Blasted runs at Styx until 11 March.