Sarah Kane was a writer of shocking and angry talent. At the age of 27, she took her own life. Did her plays foreshadow her death?
Tuesday 23 February 1999
Playing up to an audience of eager, yet slightly chippy Danes, the Brit contingent had perhaps overstated the positiveness of the relationship between dramatist and theatrical establishment in this country. Here was the cue for Kane, in the evening session, to cut the self-congratulatory cant and launch a devastating account of the innumerable ways in which a writer's vision is often, and for institutionalised reasons, betrayed in this world mecca of theatre. The Danes lapped her up.
Afterwards, with everyone a bit hysterical from a gruelling 14-hour day, we drank too much and started poking fun at the (to our ears) supreme absurdities of the Danish tongue where, say, the word for "bookshop" is "boghandel". My first thought that night was: how can one square the spectacle of this slight, fresh-faced blonde woman, creasing herself in schoolgirlish laughter, with the dark extremities of the dramatist's imagination that has put on stage every atrocity from the eating of dead babies to forcible sex-changes in totalitarian prisons; from violent male rape to castration and a mutilated penis sizzling on a barbecue? My second thought was: no, somewhat frighteningly, this adds up. The life-loving elation was the flip side of the depression that did, indeed, eventually push her to the brink and beyond.
So, it's the laughter I remember: but in her short professional life, it has to be said there was not a great deal for her to laugh about. Blasted, the play in which Bosnia suddenly erupted into a Leeds hotel room (brilliantly staged by James Macdonald at the Theatre Upstairs in January 1995), can be seen as both the making and the unmaking of her. Not many 23-year-old dramatists wake up to find their latest work the subject of heated discussions on Newsnight, or dismissed as "a disgusting piece of filth" by the Daily Mail, or hailed as the most auspicious Royal Court play since Edward Bond's Sixties masterpiece Saved with its metaphor of the baby-stoning. What had been put round Kane's neck was simultaneously a garland and a millstone.
After a suicide, it is only human to grope for something - or preferably someone - to blame. It is a temptation that should be resisted. In the following days, there will, doubtless, be cheap journalistic exercises in breast-beating hindsight, alongside the suggestion that, given her mental fragility and the media feeding-frenzy that tended to accompany her every play, the suicide was a tragic accident waiting to happen. The truth is more complicated and humdrum. It's certainly the case that very few journalists come out well from the Blasted brouhaha - not least this critic. Not only were the reviews almost unanimously hostile, but the play provoked an astonishing level of moral outrage which spread to the news pages of papers that normally regarded theatre as entirely superfluous.
I was present, straight after the first-night performance when two of my colleagues on other papers led the charge by deciding to cook up this play as a news item. My informed guess is that: a) neither of them had been profoundly offended by the play; and b), their subsequent behaviour was not motivated by malice, but by an almost childish sense of journalistic fun - the thought that it would be a wheeze to drag the theatre out of the ghetto of the theatre pages and into mainstream public attention.
Of course, in all the resulting fog of whipped-up synthetic indignation, the play - which both exhibits precocious talent and is obscurely flawed - never received the kind of sustained analysis it deserves. It is a drama in which the central character (like Kane's own father) is a tabloid journalist and, among many other things, Blasted is an indictment of the priorities of tabloid journalism. Ironically, the reception of this work endorsed her cultural diagnosis. Thought was abandoned: instead, the press gave Kane the "Bad Girl" label and left her with the impossible dilemma of living up to it - and living it down.
It's perhaps no accident that, just as her friend Mark Ravenhill followed up Shopping and Fucking with a contemporary reworking of the Faust legend, Kane moved after Blasted into the relatively less exposed area of classical updates. But Phaedra's Love is, I sense, a very personal work. The ache to find something redemptive and tender in a godless, loveless universe (crucially, Kane was a lapsed born-again Christian), here becomes more insistent. The play's most piercing stroke is Kane's radical solution to the tricky problem of finding a modern-day counterpart for the proud young prince, Hippolytus, who spurned his stepmother's amatory overtures with a priggish, militant chastity.
In her version, he becomes a grungy, reclusive, Nineties slob whose denial of love is expressed not as celibacy but as the indiscriminate indulgence of someone who treats sex as junk food and crap TV. He idly allows Phaedra to give him a blow-job, which cruelly highlights the fact that while it's easy to get in to this guy's knickers, it's impossible to get in to his heart.
Kane's last two works pushed two divergent extremes: visual and verbal. Cleansed, again beautifully mounted by Macdonald last spring on the main stage of the Court, was like a cross between a play and an installation piece as it evoked an unremittingly harrowing institution designed to rid society of its undesirables. For the first time here, in my estimation, the yearning for some loving, purifying alternative to the horror, symbolised in the incestuous devotion between a brother and sister, made a deeper dramatic impact in a Kane play than the atrocities.
A drama for four lost voices, Crave moved to the opposite pole, some critics likening it to radio drama, notwithstanding director Vicky Featherstone's superb staging concept, in which the characters sat on a line of swivel chairs like the guests on some metaphysically confessional TV show. The piece is Jerry Springer meets TS Eliot, quotations from whose poetry run through the verbal exchanges. In my review, I wrote: "On a number of occasions, Crave echoes The Waste Land: `Give, sympathise, control.'" Eliot's poem, written during a nervous breakdown, gestures towards regeneration myths with which it cannot make a living connection. At a further desolate remove, Kane's play beseechingly gestures towards the impotent gestures of the poem. That is the measure of its despair. Watching it, it crossed my mind that perhaps, as with Eliot, a reconversion experience to Christianity was on the cards.
I suspect, though, that on these deep issues she was incapable of the consolations of self-deception. Sarah Kane was a moralist of sometimes rebarbative rigour and mordant wit. A terrible pity that her career, which began with a storm of publicity, looks set to end in the same way. We all, press and theatre included, need to take far greater care of young talent and to remember that, as Ezra Pound put it, art is news that stays news. But, if the ending is grievously premature it also, like her writing, demonstrates an unselfsparing logic and, yes, considerable strength of character.
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