Cleansed at the National Theatre
The late Sarah Kane once said “there isn’t anything you can’t represent on stage” and if last night’s performance of her play, Cleansed, was anything to go by, she might be right. 17 years after her sudden suicide, her brutal reimagining of the boundaries of modern theatre is alive and kicking as Cleansed takes us on a journey into the depths of human cruelty.
The beauty of theatre is often found in the gap between the text and the theatrical realisation, a director’s interpretation of a script being the difference between a performance of profound storytelling, or a flop. It’s clear that Katie Mitchell, the show’s director, has thought long and hard about how to bring Kane’s excess to life. Set in a university turned torture camp helmed by the despotic Tinker, Cleansed is probably the most violent and graphic production you will ever watch in a theatre.
There’s a subtlety to implication, and often in theatre it is used to save the audience’s attention from the more violent aspects of a play. However, here, the body of the play is violence, and love’s desperate attempts to conquer it. It is a really striking production, as nothing is left to the imagination, yet the play is an all-out assault on the boundaries of imagination itself. There are genuinely powerful moments: Robin is forced to eat an entire box of chocolates by the sadistic and brilliant Tinker. The chocolates were bought for Grace, and, by being forced to eat them, Robin consumes the object that physically manifests his love for her. It’s a wonderfully dark and depraved moment, and it reminds the audience that mental torture can often rival the physical.
The purpose of Cleansed is to shock and appall, and it achieves its goal with trivial ease. Nonetheless, the constant onslaught of severe physical and sexual violence does become a distraction, and sometimes the result is genuinely dull. By continually overwhelming the audience, the focus is taken away from the true purpose of the text, which is about love. It seems that by focusing so much on how to bring the violence to life, Mitchell forgot that there was an audience involved, who often seem to get left behind. As Jeff Goldblum reminds us in Jurassic Park: “You were so preoccupied with whether or not you could, you didn’t stop to think if you should”. That said, Cleansed is an outstandingly gripping hour and 45 minutes, and the way in which it rips up the conventional rules of English theatre has to be seen to be believed.
Cleansed is on at the National Theatre from 23rd February until 5th May 2016, for further information or to book visit here.