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Rat with hand exits stage left

Like 'Blasted' before it, 'Cleansed' leaves no moral outrage unturned, as James Christopher reveals
James Macdonald, the soft-spoken, owlish-looking number two at the Royal Court, is about to take the biggest theatrical gamble of his career. He is directing Sarah Kane's new play Cleansed in the main house, the follow-up to Blasted, a production that drew the most controversial criticism of the past 10 years. Critics with armour-plated sensibilities fell over themselves to condemn the "feast of filth" (Daily Mail) that unfolded when a tabloid hack and a young epileptic girl were trapped in a hotel room with a rampaging soldier.

"Masturbation ... fellatio, defecation, rape, eye-gouging and cannibalism," foamed The Guardian. Most people would be delighted if they saw productions a fraction as interesting. The flak directed at Macdonald and the 23-year- old Kane reached the unprecedented heights of a bollocking by Jeremy Paxman on Newsnight. You couldn't buy a ticket for love nor money.

Those were strange days for Kane and Macdonald in 1995. It's all old chip paper now. But it put critics on their toes about a new strain of writing and a new kind of audience. According to Mike Bradwell, the artistic director at the Bush, "suddenly you couldn't move for plays that were brutal, comic and morally ambivalent".

Superficially, Cleansed looks straight out of the mould of its notorious predecessor. In a series of short pungent scenes a young girl is so obsessed about her dead brother that she wants to become him. There are acts of degradation and horror that make one fear for the play's credibility, let alone stageability. A man injects heroine into the corner of his eye; another is impaled on a stake and his tongue cut out; there is incest, a hard-core peep-show and rats that run off with dismembered limbs. But there is also a dream-like quality to Cleansed which is absent in Blasted and a clearer indication that there is a deeper language at work.

"If you tried to stage Cleansed realistically you would burst a blood vessel," says Macdonald. "It would be unwatchable." Unlike the acts of violence in Blasted, which were staged realistically, Macdonald has had to prepare a whole new strategy for Cleansed. The play takes less than half an hour to read yet the latest running time has been clocked at 90 minutes. "Words are literally only a third of the play," says Macdonald. "The bulk of the meaning is carried through the imagery. That's incredibly rare for a British playwright."

Last year, when Kane directed an acclaimed production of Buchner's Woyzeck at the Gate, she talked of Blasted and Cleansed as part of a trilogy. Macdonald seems sceptical that a trilogy is really in the offing unless he is being extremely circumspect. That Blasted and Cleansed are related plays, however, is not in doubt. "Though the links between the two," says Macdonald, "are thematic rather than narrative for the simple reason that everyone at the end of Blasted is dead."

Violence is an eloquent dynamic in all Kane's work. In Phaedra's Love, she dragged Seneca's reported atrocities from the wings to centre stage. In her short film Skin it is both functional and poetic glue. Here it is patently (and painfully) metaphoric. The relationship between Carl and Rod, two characters caught in the spokes of the subplot, revolves around a vow of love they make to each other. Every time that vow is tested, and found wanting, the offending bodily part, implicated in the act of betrayal, is physically removed.

Macdonald does admit, "if I'm being utterly truthful", that in retrospect he might have directed Blasted differently having experimented with the metaphoric process he deploys on Cleansed. "Though it is equally shocking in what is being transacted between one person and another," argues Macdonald, "what we've done in Cleansed is focus the audience on why these things are being done rather than the mechanics."

It is notable that Macdonald's best work is also curiously bound up with damaged love. In his recent production of Bernard-Marie Koltes's documentary- style thriller Roberto Zucco for the RSC, it was the seeming absence of love in the young protagonist who murdered his parents that made the play the chilling portrait of normality it actually was.

Like Zucco and probably Macdonald himself, Kane's characters are driven by desires and needs too deep for superficial soundings. From her point of view it is a love story where there are absolutely no compromises. "In fact there are four love stories," says Macdonald. "Everybody's in love. It is a play about the nature of love and its relationship to brutalisation. Love is a kind of madness and ecstasy."

Set in a sort of unspecified institution, the play gives the feeling of "being in a trap, a place where people can't escape", says Macdonald. "Love is an extreme state for better or worse. There is little room for meaningful compromise. Feeling it is a lot better than not feeling it in that feeling it one is more alive than dead."

Such extremities seem to be much more revealing about the 23-year-old Kane's idealistic belief in the destructive power of love. It's the visceral power of her images that resonate with Macdonald. "You can't have a play where everybody is in love and not engage in your own experience. Sarah has very consciously laid the play open to a lot of meanings.

"It is the reverse of conventional theatrical practice where the meaning is narrowed down scene by scene. Like Roberto Zucco, Cleansed removes the psychological signposts and social geography that you get in the Great British play. This makes it accessible to lots of different meanings which in turn makes it extremely hard to play. But that is the challenge. If it works it will work on many different levels for many different people."

'Cleansed' opens at the Royal Court on 6 May.