Theatre; What's this? No severed limbs?

CRAVE ROYAL COURT AT THE AMBASSADORS LONDON
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The Independent Culture
SARAH KANE'S plays have tended to put stiff demands on members of the props department. They have had to come up with eyes that can be gouged and edible dead babies for Blasted, a severed penis that can be chucked over the audience and end up on a sizzling barbecue for Phaedra's Love and, for Cleansed, all manner of amputatable extremity, plus rats to chew on the resulting wounds and a complete set of male genitals for surgical infliction on the heroine.

But Crave, her latest work, leaves the props people sitting twiddling their thumbs. From drama that makes a great deal of its impact through graphic visual imagery, Kane has done an about-turn and moved to a drama driven almost wholly by words.

Performed by four actors who sit on a row of chairs throughout and who, apart from a bit of expressive swivelling and one swapping of position, do nothing but talk in abrupt rhythmic crossovers, the piece is more like a poem than a play. These characters are as nailed to language and as resentfully dependent on it for a sense of their own existence as the protagonists in a Beckett piece.

As the title implies, aching need is the primary force behind Crave. An older man (Alan Williams) is infatuated with a young black girl (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) who cannot reciprocate because she is too haunted by an abused past that she can neither remember nor forget. At the same time, an older woman (Ingrid Craigie) tries to get off with a young man (Paul Thomas Hickey) in the hope that he will father the child she is desperate to have. Giving further painful emphasis to the inequalities love produces, the balance of power shifts in both relationships. The younger man, for example, comes to love the woman who, except as a means to an end, can feel nothing for him.

Powerfully attuned to the writing's rhythmic urgency, Vicky Featherstone's excellent production sweeps you up into a world of dreadful emotional and spiritual blight.

On a number of occasions, Crave echoes The Waste Land ("Give, sympathise, control"). Eliot's poem gestures towards regeneration myths with which it cannot make a living connection. At a further desolate remove, Kane's play gestures towards a poem impotently gesturing.

The script has a highly wrought verbal texture. Simple phases like "You could be my mother" are put through haunting repetitions so that they have a different implication each time (a fending-off tactic, an emotional plea, a tactless irony in the context of childlessness etc).

There is plenty of bleak black comedy, too. Could there be a more mordantly economic way of evoking the rock-bottom of unfeeling irresponsibility than "A cold fuck and a goldfish memory", or of pinning down a seriously screwed-up relationship than, "I have faked orgasms before, but it is the first time that I've faked not having an orgasm"?

Occasionally, the writing is too facilely reflexive - lines like "I despair of despair" and "I have a bad, bad feeling about this bad, bad feeling" just feel like the arch start of an infinite regress, "I despair of despairing of despair..." - but the play repeatedly pushes beyond the merely clever and represents an expansion of her talent. There is evidently more than we had thought that bears the mark of Kane.

Paul Taylor

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