THEATRE / Courting disaster

The outcry against Blasted is amply justified, says Paul Taylor; plus S trinberg's A Dance of Death
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The Independent Culture
Towards the end of Blasted, the new play by Sarah Kane at the Theatre Upstairs, a man retrieves a dead baby from under the floorboards and proceeds to relieve his hunger on it. By that stage, though, the only surprise is that he hasn't soundly sod omisedthe little corpse before starting his snack. Sitting through Blasted is a little like having your face rammed into an overflowing ash tray, just for starters, and then having your whole head held down in a bucket of offal. As a theatrical experien ce, there's nothing wrong in principle with either of these ordeals. Provided, that is, you can feel there's something happening to your heart and mind as well as to your nervous system as a result.

A character in a Saul Bellow novel, wrongly in my view, dismisses Hitchcock's art on the grounds that it offers nothing more than an "inside adrenalin-bath". For reasons I will go on to outline, I think this is precisely the limitation of Blasted, if being administered an adrenalin-bath can be said to be consistent with also feeling inwardly soiled.

At a time when it is particularly foolish to play into the hands of the busy-bodying, art-uncomprehending ban-it brigade (and I'm not just referring to the enforced Bowdlerisation of films for the video market), the Royal Court has shown poor judgement in putting itself on the line for a work whose fundamental offence is abject puerility.

This is not to say that the dramatist (in her early twenties) lacks talent, or that the piece isn't excellently acted and paced by the director James MacDonald, with a wonderful instinct for the tension you can build up by allowing things to elapse (at least for part of the play) in what feels like real time. "I've shat in better places than this," is the first line, uttered by Ian (Pip Donaghy), a sleazy tabloid journalist who has brought to this thus-maligned Leeds hotel room Kate Ashfield's Cate, theretarded, under-aged girl with whom he is infatuated and (to judge from one speech) must have been using for sex since she was a child.

To make the imbalance in the relationship graphic, Kane shows us the girl employing one hand to masturbate the journalist, while giving the thumb on her other mitt a childish suck. At this stage, the black comedy of bad taste still seems to be linked to some intelligible morality, as it does when the journo's dotingly erotic compliment - "you take me to another place" - is unwittingly put in proportion by her matter-of-fact response: "it's like that when I have a fit". Yes, she has cataleptic fits, too,which Ian exploits for unconsenting sex and the play exploits for the shock value of his doing so.

Our out-of-condition hack puffs fags and slugs gin as though his life depended on it, while claiming that he hasn't long to live. The gunsling he wears suggests that it's not just the forces within he has to fear, and from his constant racist jibes and from confessions he makes to the girl we gather that he's an undercover operator for some secret right-wing nationalist army. It's in Kane's attempts to give the situation some broader political dimension that Blasted would, you feel, insult ev en the intelligence of Ian's tabloid-rag readers. From the moment the young, generically named "Soldier" (Dermott Kerrigan) erupts with rifle into the hotel room, the spuriousness of the enterprise becomes painfully obvious.

What happens next feels like a conveniently blurred compromise between Ian's subjective nightmare of retribution and an attempt to show the Bosnia-like things that might ensue in the event of a military take-over anywhere. Defenders of Blasted would argue that the ensuing violence (the soldier brutally sodomises Ian and not only bites out his eyes but consumes them) is justified on two counts: that it represents the soldier's deranged revenge for the corrupting, similar fate of his girlfriend - and thatit helps him to illustrate his case against tabloid journalism. This seems to boil down to the claim that whereas Ian could get a "story" out of the girlfriend's case, his sort of paper and readership aren't interested in atrocities of a less "personal"nature.

But this distinction is at best hazily portrayed here, given that the soldier's qualifications for representing the latter type are skewed by the revenge element in his actions and by the fact that we remain more than a little confused about whose side he is supposed to be fighting on. Also, in view of the fact that we are told nothing more about his girlfriend than the barbarities that befell her, watching her avenged in this gory way is of interest predominantly to one's stomach. It will b e intriguing to see what Ms Kane does for encores, though I have to say I can wait.

The verbal violence in Strindberg's Dance of Death is infinitely more edifying and exciting. In Peter Stormare's fine revival at the Almeida, a superb Gemma Jones and a partly disappointing John Neville bring out the sad, tragic complicity that underliesthe mutually murderous, death-in-life marriage of the captain and his ex-actress wife. As the podgy pig in the middle, Anthony O'Donnell shows you not just the comic discomfort but the strain of a man who would like to feel he is above exploiting the situation for personal ends. The play is a Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf before its time: corrosively comic and highly recommended.

n `Blasted': Theatre Upstairs, (0171-730 2554); `The Dance of Death', Almeida, (0171-359 4404)