Sarah Kane's new play, 'Cleansed', will shock theatregoers, but that doesn't mean it shouldn't be shown.
FOR BETTER or worse, the spell of most plays drifts off the moment you leave the theatre. Not Sarah Kane's Cleansed. Hard as you try, its compelling, horror-soaked atmosphere refuses to be shaken off. It clings to you like a shroud.

This is hardly surprising in a play which painstakingly charts the descent into the brutality of a world which seeks to deny the power of positive emotion. Its catalogue of cruelties has already been accused of being irresponsibly shocking but the real shock is how powerfully the vivid images resound in your imagination for ages afterwards.

The hullabaloo that greeted Kane's Royal Court debut, Blasted , in 1995, catapulted her from nowhere to notoriety in a single night. Broadsheet newspapers, and tabloids who didn't even have a theatre critic, cleared pages to denounce the "atrocities" on display. Theatre hadn't seen such scandal since Mary Whitehouse tried to sue the National for the simulated anal rape in The Romans in Britain 15 years earlier, a scene which resembled Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm in comparison.

Kane's return to the Court revisits extreme violence. Grace (Suzan Sylvester) visits a nameless institution to reclaim the clothes of her beloved brother Graham, who died while being held there as a heroin addict. Although we have already seen his death in the opening scene - he's given a fatal overdose via an injection in his eye - there is an air of malevolent mystery about what is happening.

But Kane refuses to spoon-feed her audience with anything as comforting as a straightforward detective narrative. Instead she presents us with 20 measured scenes set within this fascist institution designed to rid society of its "undesirables", in which torture and punishment are mercilessly and methodically meted out to a desperate group of people struggling to save themselves through love.

At one particularly tender moment, Grace tries to teach Robin, an educationally subnormal boy, to read and write. Trying to draw her name so that the image corresponds to the sound of the word, he asks her for a pink crayon. Grace insists, "Its not about colour, colour doesn't come into it." To a degree, that sums up Kane's world view. For her, nearly everything is black and white, with fewshades of grey. Learning that she was a fervent, born-again, Christian until the age of 17 comes as no surprise when faced with the complete conviction of her writing: there is no room for doubt.

The writing has an almost unparalleled distilled intensity which is often unbearable to watch. Whether flinching or shuddering, your reactions to the violence are extremely physical. Carl, whose crime was to love Rod, another man, is systematically robbed of all means of human expression over successive scenes. Beaten up by unseen hands, he is then raped by an (invisible) metal pole, his tongue is cut out, his hands and then feet are cut away in sight of his lover. It may seem excessive but Kane is dealing with authoritarian violence, hardly the stuff of discretion and politeness.

In fact, her handling of image and metaphor sets her apart from almost every other playwright of her generation. Like her peers, all she is doing is creating a coherent world on her own terms, but the dramatic conjuring up of her controlled rage of what she sees makes so much contemporary dialogue-driven young writing look limply unambitious.

She is also an extremely strict writer. As in the work of Edward Bond (a major influence), her stage directions demand the apparently impossible, from the severing of limbs to burning a library of books to shattering a wall with blood and gunfire. As her own production of her translation of Phaedra's Love proved (an event which forced many of her critics to recant), she is no mean director herself.

But here, as in Blasted, she has the immense good fortune to have a director with a similarly exacting dramatic mind. James Macdonald's production has a quite terrifying sense of purpose. It is impossible to say where Jeremy Herbert's design stops and Macdonald's direction takes over, but without both the play would collapse. The text demands an almost bald production and they pay it the highest compliment by creating highly stylised, carefully plotted, pristine visual images. Those expecting a splatter- fest will be disappointed. Everything is done through suggestion, which, of course, is far more harrowing.

As a section of perimeter fence or a hospital bed are flown slowly down from above, red ribbons are used to indicate blood. At one point, Grace hangs suspended while apparently lying on a bed: the image of martyrdom is not accidental. Macdonald and Herbert take you by the hand, allowing you to become a prisoner of Kane's fierce but fiercely controlled imagination. Without this distancing degree of stylisation, the pain would be unwatchable. Yet the night I saw it, nobody left.

The precision of the staging may be beautiful but even that can not disguise clear weaknesses in the writing. With his shaved head looking lost and vulnerable nodding over his gangly body, Daniel Evans is a vision of innocence as Robin. The scene where he discovers an abacus and carefully counts out his days, building to his desperately sad suicide, is an extraordinarily affecting portrayal of a boy lost in hope, but several of the other roles are fatally underwritten. Stuart McQuarrie tries to lend depth to the torturer but the role leaves him straitjacketed.

The spare dialogue strives to pare the emotions to the bone but Kane's rigour overtakes her. The moments of pure goodness - the warmth of sunlight or the sudden appearance of upon row upon row of daffodils - are there to counterbalance the horrors of a society which kills love, but they don't resonate as strongly she wills them to. There are flashes of humour (which the audience feasts upon like manna in the wilderness) but they are few and far between, and too often she tips the balance too far, which leaves her straining to achieve further effect.

Cleansed is no means an unmitigated success, but the duty of all new- writing theatres is to honour the vision of its playwrights. To reach maturity, as Kane surely will, it is essential their work be staged. An unperformed text remains unfinished. This fiercely powerful realisation of a profoundly dystopic vision is one of the most disturbing productions you will ever see. To some it will be repellent. Others will recognise it as absolute proof of the power of live theatre.

'Cleansed' is at the Royal Court Theatre downstairs, London WC2 (0171 565 5000).

shock! outrage! encore!

"Shock and horror tactics in the theatre have an honourable tradition from the Greeks and Jacobeans through to James Bond. Kane may want to be a Bad Girl, but she also shows enormous promise."

Michael Coveney,

Daily Mail

"Sarah Kane clearly believes that she is a serious writer with important things to say. What saddens me is that the Royal Court encourages her in this delusion, in what looks like a cynical attempt to retain its reputation for controversial cutting-edge theatre. In fact, the play is a deadly, entirely predictable bore."

Charles Spencer, Daily Telegraph

"She is not the gloating opportunist that some reviewers of Blasted thought; she has, I feel, no less integrity than Pinter or Bond; but, God knows, I would hate to live in her head.

Benedict Nightingale,

The Times