A Curiously Hollow Horror Show: 'Cleansed' at the National Theatre

Photo by Stephen Cummiskey from National Theatre's website

Over-stylised and strangely unaffecting, Katie Mitchell’s staging of Sarah Kane’s controversial play yields mixed results.


City: London, England
Venue: National Theatre, Dorfman
Date: 2016-02-23

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.






Padma Lakshmi's 'Taste the Nation' Questions What, Exactly, Is American Food

Can food alone undo centuries of anti-immigrant policies that are ingrained in the fabric of the American nation? Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation certainly tries.


Performing Race in James Whale's 'Show Boat'

There's a song performed in James Whale's musical, Show Boat, wherein race is revealed as a set of variegated and contradictory performances, signals to others, a manner of being seen and a manner of remaining hidden, and it isn't "Old Man River".


The Greyboy Allstars Rise Up to Help America Come Together with 'Como De Allstars'

If America could come together as one nation under a groove, Karl Denson & the Greyboy Allstars would be leading candidates of musical unity with their funky new album, Como De Allstars.


The Beatles' 'Help!' Redefined How Personal Popular Music Could Be 55 Years Ago

Help! is the record on which the Beatles really started to investigate just how much they could get away with. The album was released 55 years ago this week, and it's the kick-off to our new "All Things Reconsidered" series.


Porridge Radio's Mercury Prize-Nominated 'Every Bad' Is a Wonderful Epistemological Nightmare

With Every Bad, Porridge Radio seduce us with the vulnerability and existential confusion of Dana Margolin's deathly beautiful lyricism interweaved with alluring pop melodies.


​​Beyoncé's 'Black Is King' Builds Identity From Afrofuturism

Beyoncé's Black Is King's reliance on Afrofuturism recuperates the film from Disney's clutches while reclaiming Black excellence.

Reading Pandemics

Colonial Pandemics and Indigenous Futurism in Louise Erdrich and Gerald Vizenor

From a non-Native perspective, COVID-19 may be experienced as an unexpected and unprecedented catastrophe. Yet from a Native perspective, this current catastrophe links to a longer history that is synonymous with European colonization.


John Fullbright Salutes Leon Russell with "If the Shoe Fits" (premiere + interview)

John Fullbright and other Tulsa musicians decamped to Leon Russell's defunct studio for a four-day session that's a tribute to Dwight Twilley, Hoyt Axton, the Gap Band and more. Hear Fullbright's take on Russell's "If The Shoe Fits".


Roots Rocker Webb Wilder Shares a "Night Without Love" (premiere + interview)

Veteran roots rocker Webb Wilder turns back the hands of time on an old favorite of his with "Night Without Love".


The 10 Best Films of Sir Alan Parker

Here are 10 reasons to mourn the passing of one of England's most interesting directors, Sir Alan Parker.


July Talk Transform on 'Pray for It'

On Pray for It, Canadian alt-poppers July Talk show they understand the complex dualities that make up our lives.


With 'Articulation' Rival Consoles Goes Back to the Drawing Board

London producer Rival Consoles uses unorthodox approaches on his latest record, Articulation, resulting in a stunning, beautiful collection.


Paranoia Goes Viral in 'She Dies Tomorrow'

Amy Seimetz's thriller, She Dies Tomorrow, is visually dazzling and pulsating with menace -- until the color fades.


MetalMatters: July 2020 - Back on Track

In a busy and exciting month for metal, Boris arrive in rejuvenated fashion, Imperial Triumphant continue to impress with their forward-thinking black metal, and death metal masters Defeated Sanity and Lantern return with a vengeance.


Isabel Wilkerson's 'Caste' Reveals the Other Kind of American Exceptionalism

By comparing the American race-based class system to that of India and Nazi Germany, Isabel Wilkerson makes us see a familiar evil in a different light with her latest work, Caste.


Anna Kerrigan Prioritizes Substance Over Style in 'Cowboys'

Anna Kerrigan talks with PopMatters about her latest film, Cowboys, which deviates from the common "issues style" approach to LGBTQ characters.


John Fusco and the X-Road Riders Get Funky with "It Takes a Man" (premiere + interview)

Screenwriter and musician John Fusco pens a soulful anti-street fighting man song, "It Takes a Man". "As a trained fighter, one of the greatest lessons I have ever learned is to walk away from a fight without letting ego get the best of you."


'Run-Out Groove' Shows the Dark Side of Capitol Records

Music promoter Dave Morrell's memoir, Run Out Groove, recalls the underbelly of the mainstream music industry.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.