A Curiously Hollow Horror Show

'Cleansed' at the National Theatre

by Alex Ramon

25 February 2016

Over-stylised and strangely unaffecting, Katie Mitchell’s staging of Sarah Kane’s controversial play yields mixed results.
Photo by
Stephen Cummiskey from National Theatre's website 
cover art

Cleansed

23 Feb 2016: National Theatre, Dorfman — London, England

Highly mannered, sometimes dimly lit, and often cutting idiosyncratically against the grain of a text, Katie Mitchell’s productions are always distinctive yet they can turn into endurance tests at their weakest. Combine Mitchell’s arch tendencies with material by Sarah Kane (poster playwright for the excesses of so-called “In-Yer-Face” theatre) and all the ingredients would seem to be in place for the ultimate evening of theatrical masochism. Alas, that’s pretty much the case here, as Mitchell’s production of Kane’s Cleansed, just opened at the National Theatre’s Dorfman auditorium, proves a fairly gruelling and frustrating ordeal, though not quite in the ways one might anticipate.

Since her death in 1999, Kane’s reputation as a playwright has only continued to grow, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that her work isn’t very often presented on UK stages. (Her plays are more frequently revived elsewhere in Europe, especially in Germany, where she has a huge following.) Indeed, Cleansed is the first Kane work to be staged at the National Theatre. The play, Kane’s third after the super-controversial Blasted and Phaedra’s Love, was first seen at the Royal Court back in 1998, and in many ways it feels like a transitional work, developing the harrowingly violent,  confrontational approach that characterised Blasted while occasionally gesturing toward the more fragmented “poetic” tone of Kane’s final pieces Crave and 4.48 Psychosis.

The drama unfolds in an institution in which a number of inmates are incarcerated, victims of torture by the sadistic Tinker (a character allegedly named for the late critic Jack Tinker, whose review of Blasted branded the play a “Disgusting feast of filth”). Grace, a young woman obsessed by the memory of her dead brother, Graham, arrives at the institution to collect her sibling’s clothes, where she soon submits to Tinker, as she craves a merging with Graham’s identity. Juxtaposed with Grace’s distressing experiences are scenes focusing on other characters enduring various abasements and obsessions in the name of love, including a gay couple, Rod and Carl, and a young man, Robin, who falls for Grace. 

Mitchell’s production begins with some flair and promise. The opening tableau, which finds Michelle Terry’s Grace attired in red and crouching on the steps of Alex Eales’s suitably distressed set, is immediately striking, and the production serves up some scattered memorable stage pictures, while skirting some of Kane’s more perversely outré stage directions, such as “The rats carry Carl’s feet away”.

It isn’t long before problems in the conception start to reveal themselves, though. Mitchell is a director who places great emphasis upon how the characters move across the stage, and one of her additions here is to provide Tinker with some hooded, black-suited flunkies to do his bidding, raping, amputating, and moving victims around on gurneys and in wheelchairs. Unfortunately, the movements of these figures—either scampering or slow-mo, and sometimes kitted out with umbrellas and other props—look painfully over-choreographed, and lend the proceedings a slightly risible air of chic artificiality that drains intensity and spontaneity throughout.

Another of the production’s conceits is to keep Terry’s Grace on stage at all times, the better to suggest that the unfolding events are some kind of grief-induced fever dream experienced by the protagonist. While that idea might work in theory, Grace’s presence, like the movements of the hooded flunkies, only succeeds in pulling focus, so that key relationships, such as that between George Taylor’s Rod and Peter Hobday’s Carl, seem unrealised and unaffecting, leaving little chance of us being moved by these characters’ fates. 

A wider problem is that Kane’s unwritten, depthless characterisation doesn’t give the actors enough to get their teeth into, sometimes leaving them painfully exposed. Michelle Terry is a wonderful performer, who has proved her skills in everything from Shakespeare to Crimp, and her commitment to the role’s physical demands is almost touchingly evident. Yet Terry often seems stranded here, and I began to feel more sympathy for the indignities that the actress was being subjected to than for the character. The same goes for Matthew Tennyson’s Robin, who undergoes a scene that combines startling contempt for actor and audience alike, as Tinker feeds him two layers of a box of chocolates bought as a love token for Grace. 

The violence and transgressive sexual acts depicted are, of course, often squirm-inducingly difficult to watch but the raw, primal emotion that would give them something other than shock value often feels counterfeit. With an artfully constructed ambient soundscape composed of buzzes, alarms, twitchy electronics (and, at one gruesome moment, a memorably off-kilter version of Blondie’s “Picture This”), Mitchell’s production oozes self-consciousness. It often resorts to heavy-handedness, too, as in the echo effect that’s put on the voice of Graham Butler’s Graham, clumsily underscoring his status as a ghostly presence. 

Always frank about her influences, Kane spoke of a variety of sources for Cleansed, including Büchner’s Woyzeck, Orwell’s 1984, Barthes’s A Lover’s Discourse and Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Twelfth Night—elements from all of those texts are felt at various points. Yet, for all its ostensible intellectual underpinnings, and occasional moments of lurid power, does Cleansed add up to anything really profound, in its exploration of love and grief? Doubtless some will insist that it does, and those who believe Kane to have been a ruthlessly perceptive dramatist and fearless theatrical innovator will probably claim to have that perception confirmed by this production. I’d argue, though, that the play’s status as tony torture porn is only enhanced by Mitchell’s over-stylised staging, which ends up as a curiously hollow horror show. 

Cleansed is booking at the National Theatre until 5 May.

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