Obituary: Sarah Kane

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The Independent Culture
SARAH KANE was a contemporary writer with a classical sensibility who created a theatre of great moments of beauty and cruelty, a theatre to which it was only possible to respond with a sense of awe. Hers was a sensibility that Shakespeare or Sophocles or Racine would have recognised but that was often abrasive for a modern audience and, it seems, incomprehensible to most critics. For those used to the reassurances of sociology or psychology in plays, the austere beauty of Kane's work was a shock to the system.

She was born in 1971, the daughter of a journalist, and brought up in Brentwood in Essex. Till the age of 17 she was a fervent born-again Christian, and then made a conscious decision to reject God. She hated the values of suburban south-east England: "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," she said.

At Bristol University, she read Drama, and was awarded a First. She then attended David Edgar's MA in play-writing at Birmingham University. Shortly after she finished, in January 1995, her play Blasted, exploring the nature of violence and war (set in a Leeds hotel room that erupts into a Bosnian war scene) was staged in London at the Royal Court Upstairs; it created a media storm.

At Bristol, Kane had been deeply affected by Edward Bond's play Saved (indeed, only a couple of weeks ago, she said to me: "You can learn everything you need to know about the craft of play-writing from Saved). "I was deeply shocked by the baby being stoned," she explained.

But then I thought, there isn't anything you can't represent on stage. If you are saying you can't represent somethng, you are saying you can't talk about it, you are denying its existence . . . 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.

In the spring of 1996, I sat down reluctantly to read Blasted. The year before I had followed the furore surrounding its opening and thought it sounded terrible: a collage of shock tactics masquerading as theatre. I wasn't going to waste my time reading such a shabby little shocker.

But Blasted blew me away. From the first few lines, I knew I was in the hands of a playwright with total mastery of her craft. The dialogue was honed: so lean and tough and expressive that I would have wept with jealousy if I hadn't been so gripped. And as the play progessed it was clear Kane had got the structure sorted as well, controlling perfectly the momentum so that its conclusion was logical and awful and beautiful.

Edward Bond was an obvious influence, and there was quite a lot of Beckett in there as well. But as I read Blasted - with its great passions locked in a small room - I was constantly reminded of Racine. And as I finished reading it I knew that Sarah Kane was a great writer and that practically every theatre critic in London was a fool.

When, a few months later, I became literary manager for the touring company Paines Plough, I decided to ask Kane to be writer in residence. I waited nervously in a bar in Soho for our first meeting, expecting someone tall and fierce and difficult. She was, of course, nothing of the sort: small, almost vulnerable, she spoke thoughtfully and quietly, occasionally allowing a naughty smile to light up her face.

Unlike many of the Selfish Young Men having their first plays produced at the time, she was informed and enthusiastic about the work of up-and- coming writers (she'd read hundreds of scripts for the Bush theatre) and had thought deeply about the craft of the playwright and was prepared to pass her skills on to others. And so, after a bit too much beer, she agreed to join Paines Plough and proved to be an excellent script reader and an outstanding teacher.

When, soon after meeting her, I saw Kane's second play Phaedra's Love at the Gate, I realised she was now speaking above the heads of the English critics to a much wider constituency. Directors, dramaturges and translators from all over Europe crammed into the tiny space to see the play and many of them were planning productions of Blasted.

Phaedra's Love, loosely based on a story already treated by Seneca, Euripides and Racine, had a fantastic sardonic anti-hero in Hippolytus and a terrific coup de theatre towards the end as what had seemed to be a chamber play was invaded by a mob. But it was disappointing after the near perfection of Blasted. Kane had written it quickly, and - I think feeling uncertain that the text would work - had decided to direct the play herself, a job she did very well.

She now started to travel widely - spending time in New York at a playwrights' retreat and seeing various European productions of Blasted, not many of them to her taste. In the summer of 1997, she gave me a copy of her play Cleansed to read; set in a concentration camp built in a former university. I was thrilled to see that it was good, if not better than Blasted. Yes, there were plenty of violent bits for her detractors to criticise, but what was extraordinary about the play was its faith in the overwhelming redemptive power of love. "Brilliant, Sarah," I said, "very Puccini." She smiled. "Yeah, well, I'm in love."

A couple of months later, she directed Buchner's Woyzeck at the Gate. It was brave but disturbing. In an already bleak play she'd removed any possibility of the slightest moment of redemption for any of the characters. I told her it was just about the bleakest thing I'd ever seen. "Yeah, well, I fell out of love," she said.

I realised later what a terrible understatement that was. Around about that time, Kane fell out of love with life. And so began great, harrowing cycles of depression, self-hate and hospitalisation. She knew that she was loved by many people and she had a solid understanding of her own talent, but she was drawn constantly to thoughts of suicide.

It wasn't all misery in those last 18 months. James MacDonald's production of Cleansed at the Royal Court in the spring of 1998 gave her great pleasure. She was thrilled to see the production team had discovered an aesthetic that realised the austere, grand theatricality of her work. And she loved taking over the role of Grace for the last few performances after Suzanne Sylvester was taken ill. What was it like to be in her own play? "It's not like being in your own play," she said. "Because that play was written by someone who had hope."

And then there was her last play, Crave (in which four voices discuss obsessive love), produced by Paines Plough last autumn. Feeling trapped by people's expectations of the now world famous Sarah Kane ("I'm not a brand name, I'm a person," she snarled at us when we asked her to do some publicity for Paines Plough), Kane initially wrote the play under a pseudonym, Marie Kelvedon. Marie gave her the licence to experiment with another part of her voice and the result was a dense, beautiful poem that proved that she was a hugely versatile talent.

A couple of weeks ago I met up with Sarah Kane and, as playwrights do, we took to drinking beer and pontificating about our craft. "You know," she said, "most good playwrights write seven good plays and then something happens and after that they're crap." We started going through lists of the greats and, with a few exceptions, we decided that she was right. "I'm not far off my allotted seven," she said. `Bollocks," I said. "You're only just over halfway through." "Yeah. Suppose," she said.

Mark Ravenhill

Sarah Kane, playwright: born 3 February 1971; died London 19 February 1999.