Sarah Kane is looking remarkably self-possessed for a young playwright of 23 who has been splashed last week over the tabloids and had her first play demolished by the critics. "I knew the tabloids wouldn't like it, but the response has been hysterical and apoplectic."
She does not exaggerate. "This disgusting feast of filth" said the headline above Jack Tinker's Daily Mail review. Nick Curtis in the London Evening Standard described the final scenes as "a systematic trawl through the deepest pits of human degradation". Most reviews catalogued the horrors depicted: emotional and physical violence, male and female rape, the scene where a starving, war-damaged soldier blinds the central character and, eats his eyes.
James Macdonald, director of the play at the Royal Court's Theatre Upstairs, sees the play rather differently. "Blasted is not a gratuitous attempt to shock. It is a serious play about the origins and effects of violence, and a moral and compassionate
piece of work."
The English stage has not seen a scandal on this scale since Mary Whitehouse tried (unsuccessfully) to prosecute the National Theatre production of Howard Brenton's The Romans in Britain for its act of simulated anal rape.
"It is distressing, if not entirely surprising," said Ms Kane. "I expected criticism, I didn't expect it to become a news item. It's a 65-seat theatre and suddenly it's Newsnight and The World at One. The thing that shocks me the most is that they seem to have been more upset by the presentation of violence than by violence itself. I mean, a 15-year- old girl has just been raped in a wood but there's more space in the tabloids about my play than about this brutal act. That's the kind of journalism that the play absolutely condemns."
Perhaps understandably, she does not want to reveal too much . about herself. "My mother has been in tears on the phone all day," she says. "If I talk too much about my life then it's an excuse for people to claim that the play is somehow autobiographic a l. It devalues it."
She is an Essex girl, born there to lower-middle-class parents in 1971. At school she directed Chekhov's The Bear and the Joan Littlewood musical Oh, What A Lovely War! Then she went to Bristol University to study drama, thought she might become a director and then discovered there was nothing she really wanted to direct. She wrote a monologue which was performed in Bristol and at the Edinburgh Festival and has since written two further monologues.
Today she lives alone in south London. Apart from state benefits and what she will earn from Blasted, she has no income.
There is, she says, "no real debate in this country about how you represent violence in art. We don't know how to talk about it, we don't know how to deal with it. The violence in this play is completely de-glamorised. It's just presented."
____________________________ `It may present a nightmare but it lacks even the logic of a dream' -Irving Wardle, page 25
-------------------------- She stands accused of having set out to shock. "I resent that the most. I wrote it to tell the truth. Of course that's shocking. Take the glamour out of violence and it becomes utterly repulsive. Would people seriously prefer it if the violence was appealing?"
Some people have said Kane doesn't seem to know how she wants her audience to respond. "It's my job to represent it. People should judge for themselves. I have no interest in trying to manipulate people's emotions or opinions. I'm simply trying to tell the truth about human behaviour as I see it. Everyone's reactions to that will always be entirely different. It's not in my control. I wouldn't want it to be."
This may be the heart of the problem. Kane's play does not take sides. She shows compassion for her characters but does not justify their behaviour. "If I had written something more polemical, with clearly defined good and bad characters, maybe it would just have been dismissed as a bad play and the reaction would have been calmer."
There are those who subscribe to the theory that all publicity is good publicity, but obviously, Daily Express headlines yelling "Rape play girl goes into hiding" are not good for the soul. Given the chance, would she have changed anything?
"No, I hate the idea of theatre just being an evening pastime. It should be emotionally and intellectually demanding. I love football. The level of analysis that you listen to on the terraces is astonishing. If people did that in the theatre . . . but they don't. They expect to sit back and not participate. If there's a place for musicals, opera or whatever, then there should be a place for good new writing, irrespective of box office.
"What do we want our culture to be remembered for in a hundred years' time: Neighbours?
"If someone had said to me six months ago, `in six months' time the play will be utterly crapped on and no one is going to realise that you're a good writer,' I would have thought it would be devastating. Actually, it's not. I really do think if it wasn't well written and about something important, it wouldn't have touched such a collection of raw nerves."
She sighs. "You'd think people would be able to tell the difference between something that's about violence and something that's violent." She ponders. "I don't think it's violent at all. It's quite a peaceful play."
The Royal Court Theatre has already commissioned her to write a second.