Reviews London TheatreReviewsWest End & Central Published 29 February 2016

Review: Cleansed at the National Theatre

16th February - 5th May 2016

Tim Bano reviews Katie Mitchell’s production of Cleansed at the National Theatre.

Tim Bano
Michelle Terry and Graham Butler in Cleansed at the National Theatre. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

Michelle Terry and Graham Butler in Cleansed at the National Theatre. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

Look at all the ways we’ve found to destroy. If time and old age don’t get us first – like they’ve got at the peeling walls of this cracked institution, the beautiful and symbolic accumulation of brown grime in the domed plastic skylights and the moss sprouting unashamedly through broken lino – then manmade methods of destruction surely will.

This, all of this, the clash of nature and humanity, of the states of intact and dissolved, of alive and dying and dead, light and dark, humour and graveness, friendship and hate, all of this smashes gracelessly into the faces of the audience in just the first moment of Cleansed. So how do I process it? Or condense it? Or even begin to understand it?


The freaks and the outcasts who have been made freaks and outcasts by fierce and accidental love: these are the subjects – and the objects – of Cleansed. Subjects because they are both the instigators of their own fates (Graham asks to be injected with a lethal dose of smack, Grace asks to be treated by Tinker, Carl asks Rod to take his ring to prove – falsely as it turns out – how much he loves him) and the victims of love they neither desired nor can control. They act, and they are acted upon. They are words and grammatical forms made flesh, active and passive at the same time.

One could – and people do – talk and write about Kane endlessly. Her plays are so rich in part because they place absolute specificity within an unfathomable abstract world. There is enough to latch onto – an incestuous relationship, for example, or a sadistic man inserting a metal pole up someone’s anus. The relationships between characters are clear, and many of these actions are clear. But where are these people? And why? And when? Kane doesn’t answer the questions that one expects, that one demands as prerequisite. Instead, she leaves us grasping, clutching, breathless and gasping as horror upon horror is inflicted upon people we recognise as people in worlds we can’t recognise at all.

Instinct has us look for connections between action and context. If I am in a supermarket, I am likely to be shopping. Kane turns it the other way around, privileging action over context. If I am shopping, it’s not necessarily the case that I am in a supermarket.

Like a Lego car in a washing machine. I can understand how the car was made, the connections between the bricks, the function of the wheels. But why is it in a washing machine? How does that relate to the car? Who put it there, and why? Or that mythical watch in the mythical field: evidence of a creator, maybe, but that doesn’t explain how the watch came to be in a field – a specific item so incomprehensibly unrelated to its context.

No more analogy. Redress.

Peter Hobday in Cleansed. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Peter Hobday in Cleansed. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

There’s a constant and unresolvable tension between real and not real – more so than any other piece of theatre. Kane wants us to see how much horror there is in the world. This horror exists, rarely in the comfortable ambits of the majority of us, but it exists. And then she chooses to show them on stage. And her text doesn’t do this symbolically or obliquely – it’s stage directions like ‘Rod falls from a great height and lands next to Carl’ or ‘rats run off with the hands’. Mitchell rises to most of these challenges, and shirks others – though she usually finds some other way to meet them. It is explicit rather than symbolic, literal rather than stylised.

But as literal and visceral Mitchell makes her production, she takes liberties with the text, too. She keeps Grace onstage throughout the play and she and designer Alex Eales add a splash of colour to the numbing sepia palette with Grace’s red dress.

Kane illuminates the simultaneous importance and uselessness of bodies, bodies which hold useless information about us like gender and age, information that society conditions us to deem important: as Grace’s red dress passes from person to person, to Robin and then to Carl, each of those characters becomes the bleeding bright red puncture wound in the play’s pale skin. Each of those characters becomes the focus of mutilation, humiliation, de-gendering, de-sensitising, the individual and discrete locus of meaning – and yet all three of those characters are inextricable parts of each other, all existing on some vast and slippery continuum of love and rupturing flesh.

In a way, Robin and Carl represent the two aspects of Grace that make her whole: love and body. Robin is the delicate and sensitive refraction of love who buys chocolates, who learns to express his love through writing, and who kills himself in a way that is least likely to destroy flesh. Carl, on the other hand, is all about physical body. He is defaced and destroyed piece by piece in the most horrific ways imaginable. Both Robin and Carl wear Grace’s red dress because, collectively, they represent her and she them.

This is just one of the many ways in which Kane explores bifurcation in the play. Love can only exist when there are two people; what happens when one of those people is incomplete? Becomes something less than whole?

Try and fail try and fail try and fail.

Michelle Terry in Cleansed. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Michelle Terry in Cleansed. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

The ghost of Graham haunts the stage, while Grace is sometimes real and sometimes she is Tinker’s hallucination. The actor is always physically present, but sometimes she is, within the world of the play, ‘real’ and sometimes she is just a phantom. In a play that so unrelentingly mutilates characters’ bodies, this is another beautiful tension. Graham is a pile of ashes – we know that, his urn is on stage – and yet here he is in physical form interacting with and having sex with Grace. It’s not only Grace that can see him, we the audience can too. We can see his whole, unburned body. Film can add ripples around the edges to make clear when someone is a ghost or a dream. Theatre can’t. Maybe this is his soul, or his essence, or just the memory of him kept alive by Grace. But it’s the thing that Grace loves. No amount of physical torture can destroy the intangible bits of us.

Names are important. Souls are important. Love is important. Bodies get in the way of all that.

Is that even my idea? my idea? my idea

The Greek word ‘catharsis’ means ‘cleansing’, and theory since Aristotle suggests that ancient audiences watched tragedy in order to feel that sense of being cleansed. They saw the furthest horrors of the human condition, they pitied and they feared, and were purified.

Jacob Bernays argues that Aristotle uses the word ‘catharsis’ in its medical sense of purgation, the kind of cleansing that a laxative or an emetic would cause. Kane seems to be striving for something similar, except she makes the medical association much more explicit. ‘Doctor’ Tinker empties these physical bodies, he warps and mutilates them, until they are unrecognisable. He destroys them physically but cannot touch the soul.

The audience just has to watch, but the effect is (though lesser) still similar: be drained, exhausted, numbed by the violence, be emptied out, be cleansed. Powerful theatre has an unidentifiable effect. The lights go up and you realise your heart has been pounding and palms sweating and nausea rising and you exhale and get on with your life. Maybe it’s catharsis in the sense that a washing machine cleans: the rough and tumble of cleansing is intense in that spinning drum, but then the cycle ends and the drama of that insular, sealed unit is over.

Refreshed and renewed, pleased that you survived, ready for the next cycle some other time. I ate chicken with mushrooms and rice for dinner and I watched a celebrity darts programme. I didn’t think about Sarah Kane or Cleansed. I didn’t think about Syria or migrants or the environment, and I didn’t feel guilty about not thinking about them. I just didn’t think about them. Those horrors are my world but I choose not to make them my world if I don’t want to, nor do I ever have to bear witness unless I choose to, or contemplate them unless I choose to. I chose to go to Cleansed, but I’ve never chosen to watch a beheading video on LiveLeak. I will endure fiction that convincingly masquerades as reality, but I refuse to face the reality.

Or not, or something else. 

Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Photo: Stephen Cummiskey

Cleansed – like everything – comes with a colossal amount of critical baggage. It now feels a bit like all that “knowledge” rather gets in between the audience and the play. And I’m not acknowledging that properly. Like, all that Greek stuff about catharsis. Does it actually mean anything?

What’s the better critical practice, to sound definitive even if it’s a lie, or to admit uncertainty and to own when I’m out of my depth? It isn’t possible to go back to the beginning, is it. There’s no way of erasing preconceptions because they’ve always already happened. There’s no way of assessing the play because I’ve seen the production, and there’s no way of assessing the production because I’ve read the play.

Kane’s text, to read, is short and tight and fast. There are impossible stage directions, succinctly described. Mitchell doesn’t just read between the lines, she crowbars the lines apart until there are vast chasms in between. Her production, to watch, is a series of vast and extreme set pieces of precise and meticulous detail.

What every review and every comment piece picks up on is the production’s realistic depictions of violence; what few of them question is the production’s theatricality. The lucid essay by Dan Rebellato in the play’s programme says “On the page the play is strewn with tortured bodies [“¦] but the very extremity of the events defies their theatrical realisation.” It is easy to squirm at the hypodermic going into Graham’s eyeball. But the needle is misaligned and it wobbles – details that betray the unreality of this piece of theatre. As much as Mitchell tries to capture the uncountable details that go into every gesture and deed (how do you actually cut out a tongue?) there is still, always, a necessary imaginative leap, the essential adoption of a state of self-denial, that allows one to accept onstage action as fact, not staged fiction.

Even if each new hell has the hairs bristling, fists clenching and sinews tensing it is the work of a moment to realise the mechanics of the action: where the blood packets are secreted, from what hole the rats are yanked.

So the question becomes: are these perfidious cracks in the fabric of the onstage reality a failure of Mitchell’s direction, or an inherent part of it? For the Mitchell devotees and the Kane devotees – and especially the intersection of those groups – of course being able to work out how the tricks were done is deliberate; for the unconvinced, for those who want a production to do all the work for them and to make the suspension of disbelief as little effort as possible, if you can work out how the magician’s trick is done, then the trick – and the magician – have failed.

I admit, willingly, that I do not know Mitchell’s work nearly enough to be able to put Cleansed into the context of her corpus. And, despite having read Kane’s work, this is the first time I have seen a play of hers on stage. But it seems to me that theatre exists with the most vitality, it thrives and it has most meaning, when it is on that precarious brink between fact and fiction, real and fake.

It needs someone like Mitchell, with her assiduous attention and devotion to detail, to bring staged action as close to natural as possible in order to expose the ultimate futility of the attempt.

Cleansed is on at the National Theatre until 5th May. Click here for tickets. 


Tim Bano

Tim is a freelance arts writer and theatre critic. He writes regularly for Time Out, The Stage and other publications. He is co-creator of Pursued By A Bear, Exeunt Magazine's theatre podcast.

Review: Cleansed at the National Theatre Show Info

Directed by Katie Mitchell

Written by Sarah Kane

Cast includes Michelle Terry, Matthew Tennyson, Peter Hobday, Graham Butler, Tom Mothersdale, George Taylor, Natalie Klamar



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