Peter Brook once wrote that one of the hallmarks of a great stage play is its capacity to burn an indelible image into your brain – a king and his fool on a stormy heath; two tramps killing time under a bare tree. I was reminded of this as I watched Sean Holmes's extraordinarily compelling revival of Sarah Kane's Blasted, fifteen years on from the premiere that triggered the biggest torrent of outrage since The Romans in Britain.
This is the play which seeks to expose a direct moral continuum between a private act of violence in a Leeds hotel room and the public barbarities of a place like Bosnia. Ian, a racist tabloid hack, rapes his epileptic former girlfriend and thereby unleashes a surreal storm of retributive horrors that blast the play into a different shape. A mortar bomb rips the hotel apart. Ian is sodomised and has his eyeballs sucked out by a war-crazed soldier. Foiled in his bid to commit suicide, he's reduced to digging up and eating a dead baby.
Holmes's production is lethally well-judged. Its unhurried pace ramps up the tension in an almost Hitchcock-like fashion, as when Aidan Kelly's towering, unnervingly gentle soldier eats up every last bit of two full English breakfasts with his fists before indicating any further intentions to a frozen-with-fright Ian. While distinctly alive to the play's gallows humour ("Can't be tragic about your arse," the soldier declares, suggesting that mere buggery at gun point is a picnic to what he's been through), the production skilfully pre-empts defensive laughter at the pile-up of atrocities by heightening our sense both of the hideous poetic justice behind each of them and the ways in which they are like a sick, mocking confirmation of Ian's chauvinist paranoid fantasies.
The excellent performances highlight the enlivening contradictions in Kane's characters. Danny Webb's Ian is both a cacklingly callous, sexually perverted Yorkshire bigot and a pathetic, terminally ill man on a self-destructive bender. There's a twisted mix of gross opportunism and anxious concern in his attitude to Cate, who veers between epileptic defencelessness, residual intimacy and vindictive disgust in Lydia Wilson's striking portrayal.
Using the Lyric's full depth and height, Paul Wills's stunning design reduces the wrecked hotel to a few concrete girders that dwarf the bed now marooned in epic desolation. In a manner that recalls Brook's criterion for a great play, the final series of snapshots of Ian in extremis are here picked with a terrible poetic beauty in a lofty shaft of white light as though they were holy pictures retouched by Beckett or Bacon. The sight of him, say, hugging the corpse of the soldier who raped him in an abject search for comfort is a blistering blend of the horrible and the heart-rending. And, of course, there's the play's indelible climactic image of Ian's blinded head poking through the floorboards in a scene where he's revived from death by a shower of rain and then fed bread and gin by Cate – an act of charity whose redemptiveness has just the right offhand, downbeat quality in this shatteringly persuasive revival.
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