The blurb of the Julie Cunningham & Company production of Sarah Kane’s Crave says it “investigates dark and potent themes including rape, addiction and instability”.
The possibility of this being a light exploration of said themes is shattered the moment you step into the theatre. Sounds that suggest domestic bliss – a toddler’s laughter, fairground music, a clarinet practising scales – are juxtaposed with bodies strewn across the floor. They move occasionally, slowly, as if in disrupted sleep, while their awkward angles also conjure up car crash fatalities.
In truth, Kane’s 1998 play, bar a couple of longer narratives, mostly comprises fragments that leave the audience to decipher the bigger story – getting pregnant from drunken sex with a stranger, buying a partner make-up to cover her cuts and bruises.
Cunningham’s company launched at the Barbican only last year, but you can see the defiantly untraditional approach to music and structure of Merce Cunningham (no relation) and the classical sensibility of Michael Clark – two companies that Cunningham was part of. In fact, this production, featuring four dancers (including Cunningham herself, who is a supremely commanding presence) and four actors, is really a combination of two forms, without one ever taking precedence over the other.
Haunting imageries such as unreciprocated embraces and outreached arms simultaneously seeking help and taking aim are accompanied by a recurring idea of losing balance – the dancers are often in high arabesques or retirés, or in sharp changes of direction, creating a sense of the precarious, the temporary – that reflects the play’s constant feeling of teetering on the edge.
Indeed, the theme of repetition is evident in the text – along with words being repeated over and over (“stop”, “no”), there are references to tape recording, echoes and circles, like horror lived in an unending loop.
There is a particularly gorgeous monologue by Anna Martine Freeman, about typing up your lover’s letters, doing their shopping, making them tapes they don’t listen to. As the rhythm builds, the delivery becomes more frantic – manic, even – and you’re left wondering if it’s as sweet as it initially appears. Cunningham’s movement becomes increasingly fractured and shaken, sometimes running as if she’s looking for someone and trying to escape at the same time.
Repetition is employed liberally in the choreography but the dancing is at times so luscious that I wish there were more: a pas de deux between Eleanor Perry and Cunningham with no eye contact; Carolyn Bolton’s series of contemporary grands battements; Hannah Burfield’s lovely extensions; slow promenades in unison.
But the nature of Kane’s text demands repetition, so it’s not a fair criticism. And the fact that some of the images are still so vivid a day later suggests perhaps it doesn’t matter at all.
Crave was on at the Barbican until 13 May 2018. Click here for more details.