Have we ever taken a straight look at Sarah Kane's Blasted? Sean Holmes, whose revival opens this Thursday at the Lyric Hammersmith, thinks not. There was scant chance of a reasoned appraisal when it opened in January 1995. The play itself got lost in the torrent of (slightly synthetic) outrage that was triggered not just by the unprecedented atrocity-count in the piece (everything from homosexual rape to eating a dead baby), but by an overnight review in the Daily Mail that famously fulminated against "this disgusting feast of filth".
Six years and four further Kane plays later, the Royal Court mounted Blasted again in 2001, as part of a retrospective of her work. This time, Holmes intimates, there was the danger of seeing it too much in the light of the author's suicide, by hanging, in February 1999. Back-pedalling reviewers were no longer inclined to accuse her of sensation-mongering, though some still managed to patronise her world-view by suggesting that it was the alarmist projection of a depressive mind.
My own bill of health on the Blasted front is far from spotless. In 1995, I informed readers of The Independent that watching the play was like "having your whole head held down in a bucket of offal"; in 2001, I declared that it is "one of those rare works of art that create the criteria by which they should be judged" (a position from which I have not deviated).
Much had happened in the intervening six years – not least, the premiere of Harold Pinter's 1996 play, Ashes to Ashes, which I'm convinced was partly inspired by Blasted and in a manner that throws light on the latter's originality. And, on a personal level, I had crossed paths with the author. In December 1998, the Royal Court held a weekend conference about contemporary drama in Copenhagen. My brief was to open the first day's proceedings with a paper on "the critic's duty to new writing". Imagine my consternation when the first person I noticed in the audience, steadily gazing down at me, was the fresh-faced Sarah Kane. She confounded all my expectations by being terrific fun, full of the life-loving elation that was the flipside of her despair. The shared jokes that weekend sharpened my appreciation of the dark humour that glints even in her bleakest work.
Kane's sardonic wit is illustrated in the great first line of Blasted: "I've shat in better places than this". The location is a room in an expensively anonymous Leeds hotel, where a naive, epileptic young girl is holed up with her former boyfriend – a racist, rotting tabloid journalist who (during the night) rapes her. As if in response to this private violation, a soldier bursts in, a mortar bomb tears the hotel apart and the horrors of Bosnia are unleashed. The play is formed in fragments, ending up as a series of Beckettian snapshots of mankind reduced to its bare essence.
Pinter's Ashes to Ashes was, in my opinion, influenced by Blasted in the way it seeks to pierce the membrane between a comfortable, contemporary English setting and the kind of systematised barbarity we like to feel could only happen abroad. But in Pinter's play, archetypal atrocities infiltrate the present through the dream-like questionable "memories" (of death-camps and bundles torn from screaming mothers) of a woman who is being interrogated by her partner. More boldly, Kane suggests a moral and emotional continuum between a sexual assault in Leeds and the rape camps of Bosnia by directly visiting those distant atrocities on a tabloid hack whose benighted paper is only interested in covering kinky personal scandal. It's a blackly ironic, formally daring work which, in the final image of an act of charity proffered in extremis, resists the sentimentality of nihilism.
A generation has grown up knowing the piece only through theatre studies; for them, Holmes is intent on presenting a production of Blasted that comes without any of the previous baggage.
'Blasted', Lyric Hammersmith, London W6 ( www.lyric.co.uk) to 20 November