What Sarah did next

Sarah Kane's first play, 'Blasted', provoked outrage over its portrayal of sex and violence. Now she's updating Greek myth, and promising more of the same.
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The Independent Culture
"I was aware that it wasn't 'a nice play', but it didn't seem to me that it was untruthful. It seemed odd that people could get so upset about something that was just truth but also not real." Sarah Kane has been accused of many things, but understatement is not one of them.

The reviews for her debut play Blasted at the 65-seat Royal Court Upstairs were almost unanimously hostile. Set initially in a Leeds hotel room that turned into a scene from the war in Bosnia, it provoked outrage. The Guardian derided "scenes of masturbation, fellatio, frottage, micturation, defecation, homosexual rape, eye gouging and cannibalism... I was simply left wondering how such naive tosh managed to scrape past the Court's normally judicious play selection committee." The Spectator declared it "a truly terrible little play", and the Daily Mail was "utterly and entirely disgusted by a play which appears to know no bounds of decency, yet has no message to convey by way of excuse".

Theatre hadn't seen a scandal like this since Mary Whitehouse attempted to ban The Romans in Britain in 1980. It made Newsnight, and tabloid journalists, who probably had to ring the theatre to discover its whereabouts, swarmed about the foyer trying in vain to find ashen-faced punters leaving before the end. Kane, then a pale 23-year-old, took it all in her stride, though sordid headlines like "Rape play girl goes into hiding" were not only untrue - she attended most of the performances - but also distressing for the vicious conjectures as to her private life.

Eighteen months on, sitting in the ramshackle office of the tiny Gate Theatre, where she's directing her latest play Phaedra's Love, she is sanguine about the experience. "I grew up with tabloid journalists so I knew what it was like," she remarks coolly, reaching for a cigarette. "Whether the press say you're depraved or a genius, it makes no difference. It doesn't make the job of sitting down and writing any easier or any harder. It's always as hard as it is and that's that. It's really only relevant to the theatre in terms of selling tickets."

And sell tickets it did. Punters were turned away in droves. Not that the ones who managed to get in were necessarily the ideal audience. "It reached the point where people were coming in order to walk out or to prove how hard they were. There was one night when the front row was filled with a group of lads determined to prove how funny they found it. It was a shame because no one could see the play itself anymore."

The experience was reversed when she attended readings in New York and, particularly, in Romania. "The idea of a soldier bursting into a room and raping the inhabitant isn't particularly a difficult one there. What shocked them was the language as they've only recently got rid of theatre censorship. They are used to doing things through strong image but not to saying 'fuck' on stage."

There are now productions due in Germany and, at home, Kane has been busy. She has a commission from the RSC, has completed the first draft of another play for the Court, has written a short film for Channel 4, screened at the 1995 London Film Festival, and Phaedra's Love begins previews tonight.

Having enjoyed Caryl Churchill's version of Seneca's Thyestes, when the Gate asked Kane to rewrite a European classic she read Phaedra. Euripides covers the same ground in Hippolytus - she describes its misogyny as "hilarious" - but she rejected it and returned to Seneca. "I was struck that it is about a sexually corrupt royal family, which makes it totally contemporary." Then there was Hippolytus, Phaedra's son-in-law. "This supposedly beautiful young boy is, to my mind, totally unattractive and other than the influence of the gods, I couldn't see why Phaedra would fall in love with him. I wanted that same drive towards destruction at the end but I didn't want the passion imposed by the external force of the gods. I wanted to give it to the characters, to make it a human tragedy, so I turned him into something quite different."

More discerning reviews of Blasted pointed to her command of stripped- down language, likening her to Edward Bond, an author she admires enormously. How does that skill sit with the flowing rhetoric of classical theatre? "I wanted to keep the classical concerns of Greek theatre - love, hate, death, revenge, suicide - but use a completely contemporary urban poetry. I see the writing as poetic. Just not verse." She also admits to having a problem with the Greek idea of the violence happening offstage. "Well, obviously I would," she laughs. "I mean, if you're not going to see what happens, why not stay at home? Why pay pounds 10 to not see it? The reported deaths in Seneca are incredibly strongly written, conjuring the image really well, but personally I'd rather have an image right in front of me."

It's a skill she honed on her film Skin. "We realised halfway through the shoot that it was too long and so we had to be brutal about cutting, which I really enjoyed... trying to hang on to the poetry of the writing but at the same time being really functional." She pauses, catching a thought. "I'm not keen on over indulgence. I know nobody would agree with me on that."

She considers Blasted to be a play about our fragility, about survival and hope. Phaedra's Love deals with love and faith and, importantly for her, about extreme depression. She's guarded about the subject because it's clearly highly personal. "Through being very, very low comes an ability to live in the moment because there isn't anything else. What do you do if you feel the truth is behind you? Many people feel depression is about emptiness but actually it's about being so full that everything cancels itself out. You can't have faith without doubt, and what are you left with when you can't have love without hate?"

Her vulnerability is usually masked by an articulate self-confidence stemming from her background. "Hard to believe, I know, but I was a fervent, born-again, charismatic, spirit-filled Christian. Until the age of 17, I sincerely believed I had nothing to fear in death and the Second Coming would occur in my lifetime. I wouldn't even have to die physically." She warms to her theme. "In a sense, it's what Phaedra is about. Like Hippolytus, I committed the unforgivable sin, which is knowing that God is real and consciously deciding to reject Him. I believed in God but not in the lifestyle that Christianity demanded. I knew a lot of Christians who I thought were fundamentally bad people and a lot of non-Christians who I thought were utterly beautiful, and I couldn't understand that, so I made a conscious decision to reject God and gradually my belief subsided. According to the Bible I am now utterly damned. The point in Phaedra is that if you're not sure God exists you can cover your arse, living your life carefully just in case, as the priest does, or you can live your life as you want to live it. If there is a God who can't accept the honesty of that then, well, tough." Which leaves her a practising agnostic, terrified of death.

At this point, she's also worried about the production. "I swing between total confidence and total terror. I think a lot of people won't see beyond the fact that there was a lot of nasty stuff in Blasted and there's even more in this." I point out that this time, the suicide, lust, hatred and murder are in the original. "Yeah," she agrees grinning, "it's not a tea party. Blame it on the Greeks."

n 'Phaedra's Love' previews today at the Gate Theatre, London W11. To 15 June (0171-229 5387)

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