A very angry young woman
Monday 23 January 1995
"The most notorious playwright in Britain" Sarah Kane, sits drinking black coffee (she's a vegan) and worrying what her parents are going to think of her play Blasted.
Twenty-three-year old Kane takes a sanguine attitude to her succes de scandale of the past week. It's no mean achievement that your first professionally produced play is featured on Newsnight. But Kane expresses genuine surprise that so much media attention could be devoted to a play in a 65-seat theatre in the same week that thousands have died in a Japanese earthquake.
Only two years ago she was the youngest student on David Edgar's MA in play-writing at Birmingham University, where her extreme youth was offset by two distinct advantages: a conspicuous talent and a burning need to confront certain issues in her writing. She was accepted on the course on the basis of a monologue called Starved, which tells of a bulimic woman.
When told she had to write dialogue, not just monologues, she produced a sketch in which a woman stands talking to a man, while pointing a gun at his genitals. She was never one to shy away from controversy, and Edgar remembers her with wry affection as "a woman with a lot of strong opinions".
Blasted, which has re-established the Royal Court as the home of angry young writers, is, Kane reveals, the first part of an eventual trilogy about the nature of war. "For me there isn't anything else to write about. It's the most pressing thing to confront."
What makes Blasted so vivid and so dangerous is its ability to link domestic, personal, emotional - even verbal - violence with war and the atrocities that take place during it.
It is especially shocking that this appalling vision comes from the imagination of so young a woman, barely out of tertiary education, the daughter of a journalist, born and brought up in Essex. Yet the emotional honesty of her writing suggests that she has plumbed great depths in herself to write it, and it touches audiences in a similarly challenging way. "Any piece of writing that is good or honest inevitably draws on the writer's emotional experience," she said. "The play isn't autobiographical in any sense - though it is based on my experience of the way people behave."
Kane is passionately opposed to the values of suburban south-east England. Perhaps this offers a key to her identity as a writer?
"I suppose I would be a different person if I didn't come from Essex, so obviously I would be a different kind of writer," she admits. "But I wouldn't give Essex credit for that.
"It has a mentality that is very blind to our relationships with Europe and with the rest of Britain. There is an attitude that certain things could not happen here. Yet there's the same amount of abuse and corruption in Essex as anywhere else, and that'
s what I want to blow open. Just because there hasn't been a civil war in England for a very long time doesn't mean that what is happening in Bosnia doesn't affect us."
At Bristol University, where she walked away with a first in drama, Kane began to get a taste for those very un-Essex men, Edward Bond, Howard Barker and Samuel Beckett.
"When I read Saved, I was deeply shocked by the baby being stoned. But then I thought, there isn't anything you can't represent on stage. If you are saying you can't represent something, you are saying you can't talk about it, you are denying its existence, and that's an extraordinarily ignorant thing to do.
"My intention was to be absolutely truthful about abuse and violence. All of the violence in the play has been carefully plotted and dramatically structured to say what I want about war. The logical conclusion of the attitude that produces an isolated rape in England is the rape camps in Bosnia. And the logical conclusion to the way society expects men to behave is war."
In her desire to write truthfully about war, Kane has been formally daring in a way that the Royal Court's Stephen Daldry believes has been misunderstood. "One of our disappointments is that the metaphorical landscape has not been understood, or has beenobscured by the controversy," he says.
"I tried to draw on lots of different theatrical traditions," explains Kane. "War is confused and illogical, therefore it is wrong to use a form that is predictable. Acts of violence simply happen in life, they don't have a dramatic build-up, and they are horrible. That's how it is in the play. Critics would prefer it if there was something artificial or glamorous about violence."
The seriousness of Kane's intentions cannot be doubted, and the Royal Court is standing by her, as Daldry confirmed: "We're committed to her not just for this play, but for her career. We wouldn't dream of not programming a play for approval's sake, but nor do we seek that controversy. It is deeply worrying for a liberal press to suggest that we should keep our heads tucked down at a time of attacks from the right in the hope of preserving funding. That would be a cultural surrender."
If Kane's vision is so bleak, how can she get up every morning? She answers with surprise. "Once you have perceived that life is very cruel, the only response is to live with as much humanity, humour and freedom as you can. Writing is an expression of that - so it is ironic that people are trying to clamp down on it."
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