As you enter the Sheffield Crucible Studio you find a large, very expensive looking hotel room. Blasted is set in Leeds, and the hotel is commonly thought to be the Queens Hotel – which I had just passed on my way here. Having been into the Queens, in fact to see a student production of Blasted which was performed there, I can say that they have the look of the room just about perfect. The set is naturalistic in every detail, as the door opens you see the rest of the corridor disappearing off into backstage.
This is the first full professional production of Blasted I’ve seen. As well as the Queens Hotel production (by Felix Mortimer who has gone on to be RIFT Productions) I saw a reading at a Sphinx conference in about 1996 or 97 – not long after the original production. Then I saw a reading in Amsterdam in 1998. It was after that reading that I felt like I really ‘got’ the play. The Sphinx reading was very much ‘in-yer-face’ (I unfortunately didn’t see the original production which may not have been so at all.) The Dutch one gave more space; there was a sense of a distance between the words, the performer and you. This distance allowed you to hear the words, and have them impact you, without a definitive meaning coming from the performance. Perhaps helped by fact they were acting in their second, or even third or fourth, language. Paul Slangen, an extremely brilliant Dutch dramaturg, once explained to me the difference between the British and the Dutch/German acting style. He hugely admired British actors’ ability to completely emotionally and psychologically commit to a role. In the Netherlands, he said, you always have both the performer and the character on stage, the performer can both present and comment upon the character; both be and do. We had this conversation in 1998 just after having seen Crave – and there is something in Sarah Kane’s plays that lends itself to this less naturalistic, more conscious style of performance, something in their precise, metaphysical language and construction. They are very, very real worlds, real emotions and people, but not naturalistic ones. They both reach across and hold a distance from the reality we, the audience, sit within. It is precisely this tension that makes them so enthralling.
Ok I’m not really saying much about this production. So to get back to it. On to this very realistic reproduction of the Queens Hotel comes Martin Marquez and Jessica Barden as Ian and Cate. The acting style here I would describe as restrained British. It is absolutely not overplayed in the small and intense space of the Studio; it felt a very naturalistic performance, almost as if you could be watching it close up on television. The performances may have been more subdued than normal as, rather meanly, I was watching it the night after press night, which is usually the worst performance to judge once all the adrenaline has left. We were probably not the best audience either as about a third to a half of a full auditorium were rather giggly, whispery students.
It is not stipulated in the text that Cate has learning difficulties. She has a stutter and fits and Ian taunts her about never being able to get a job. It is a valid, and interesting, reading of the part that she has some form of unspecified mild learning difficulties. It seemed to me that Jessica Barden was doing a slight learning-disabled voice and mannerisms, when she is very clearly not learning-disabled herself. This for me got in the way of her performance. I am aware that this has to do with my own particular sensitivity to ‘cripping up’, the practice of non-disabled actor playing a disabled role. Just to be clear, pace the bit above about non-naturalism and the performer and role being visible, of course any actor can play any role. However, they always bring on stage who they are. So in Selma Dimitrijevic’s The Gods Have Fallen and All Safety Gone, mothers and daughters are played by two men, observed by a real mother and daughter. The choice to gender swap is clear, and you can like it or dislike as you choose. Here, I wasn’t clear if this was a choice we were supposed to be conscious of or simply that we were supposed to read Cate as a learning-disabled character. This is absolutely not me having a pop at Sheffield Theatres, who I know have a very active commitment to diversity of this and other kinds. And in the previous production I saw here directed by Richard Wilson, Love Your Soldiers, there was a disabled performer playing a disabled role, something I know that he insisted on. So it may well be that the choice came from not finding a suitable actor with learning difficulties, or not thinking that appropriate for this production. However, all I can say is that for me, in this show on this evening, it got in the way. I kept seeing a non-disabled actor, I’m sure a very talented one, playing disabled rather than playing the role. I will also say I would go a long way to see a learning-disabled actor play Cate. It would be dynamite to see that sexual, abusive, loving and co-dependent relationship played out between a learning-disabled and a non-disabled actor.
On a similar note, Mark Stanley brought intensity and menace to the role of Soldier. His speech on the rape and murder of a whole family was the first moment when this production really hit me in the gut. But. He is white. In Ian, Kane gives us a protagonist who is a racist and abusive. There was a palpable gasp in the room as he dropped the N-word just before opening the door to the Soldier. Blasted constantly plays with the notion of who is I, who is us, who is the Other. Who has power, and who doesn’t. For Ian, the Other is the foreigner, the blacks, the lesbos. To bring the Soldier on who is Black and British, in and yet not of the same world as Ian, confronts and subverts that view in a way that is slippery and ambiguous. It confronts us with our own views of who constitutes us and who is Other in our society. Having an entirely white cast, however talented and good, somehow loses the danger of that. I guess I’m saying this would be a more interesting production with a more diverse cast, even if you changed nothing else. Again this is not a go at Sheffield (the home of Eclipse theatre and much else besides) but maybe a gentle challenge to us all, me included, to consider how diversity can make better art.
That’s a lot of words talking about the production it isn’t. What about the production it is? It is a good, faithful, well-acted, naturalistic (dare I say very British?) production of one of the greatest plays of the 20th or any other century. It is beautifully realised, with one of the most convincing prop babies I have ever seen on stage – well done whoever made that. It isn’t the production that is going to float my boat but that’s me. It is strong, clear production of just the most brilliant play. I still came away in awe of the complexity, the humanity and beauty of this writing. And very, very grateful to Sheffield Theatres for putting on the season so Sarah Kane’s work can be seen, appreciated and inspire us again.
The review was edited on 30th March 2015 to correct a statement that the original Soldier, Dermot Kerrigan, was black. The author has confused two different productions of the play. Apologies to all concerned.