Zerbombt, Barbican, London

4.00

Sarah Kane's legendary play Blasted begins with one of the best opening lines in world drama, as the foul-mouthed, possibly paedophilic journalist declares to the young girl he has brought to a Leeds hotel room: "I've shat in better places than this."

When the piece opened at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs on that historic night in January 1995 (causing the Daily Mail's theatre critic to rush to the phone and file a piece decrying "this disgusting feast of filth"), the words certainly applied to the two-star hotel implied by the set.

However, in the brilliant new German-language production by Thomas Ostermeier with Berlin's Schaubuhne am Lehniner Platz currently visiting the Barbican, one reckons that the hack must be very choosy about the joints where he overnights, for this is a sleek, four-star hotel, all soulless gloss and huge plasma television screen.

It's an irony that would not have been lost on Kane that, as her play has been posthumously promoted from succès de scandale to modern classic, so too has the setting gone up in the world.

The drama divides into two halves, with an explosion that blasts the hotel room apart, letting in the Bosnian-style horrors that the play argues are on a continuum with the journo's abusive behaviour towards, and sexual exploitation of, the girl.

Ostermeier's production is in no hurry to get to the famous coup de théâtre. There's a very disturbing quality to its lethally relaxed sense of pace. It's so unforced that it's almost detached and this paradoxically draws you. Every moment is filled with a desperate sadness and a feeling of impending dread. It brought to my mind a couplet by Alexander Pope: "The spider's touch, how exquisitely fine,/ Feels at each thread and lives along the line." Creepy.

The performances are superb. Ulrich Mühe's journo, Ian, shows you the bluff and shoddy bravado of a man on the run from his own mortality, while Katharina Schüttler's Cate brings out all your protective instincts at the same time as not for a moment being sentimental.

As the soldier who rapes Ian and eats his eyes, the hulking, pathetic and quietly terrifying Thomas Thieme somehow manages to wring the heart. The classical magnificence of the piece is in good hands here in a production that boasts a grasp of time second to none.

It also demonstrates Kane's gift for pitch-black comedy. It was once my privilege to be at a conference with her in Copenhagen and my abiding memory of the woman whom the tabloid press dubbed "the bad girl of English drama" is of a late-night drinking session where we were all doubled up with laughter at the (to our ears) eccentricities of the Danish language. I recall that the Danish word for bookshop "boghandel" caused particular paroxysms of mirth.

This is not an evening for the faint-hearted - it left me feeling as though I had aged about 30 years. But it is an essential evening for anyone who cares about the art of theatre.

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