A new Sydney production of Sarah Kane’s iconic play Cleansed reveals the love that persists beneath the world’s brutality. By Cassie Tongue.
Sarah Kane’s playwriting career was short but striking. All five of her plays – Blasted, Phaedra’s Love, Cleansed, Crave (originally presented under a pseudonym) and 4:48 Psychosis – are built around brutal violence and the cruelty of despair. Beneath those blunt instruments, designed to shock audiences into attention, is breathtaking grace: her plays are finely built artworks constructed with poetic and unsentimental language, vessels for adventurous, reality-collapsing narratives that never look away from hard truths.
Kane saw a broken world and wrote it into daring poetry so that audiences, too, would take note. Her debut, Blasted, a play that crashes the horror of war into the heart of a broken relationship, caused an instant controversy with its graphic assaults and cannibalism. Some critics were quick to dismiss her works as cheap filth, but Kane continued to write until she couldn’t write anymore, her works at the forefront of the British “in-yer-face” theatre movement that sprang from Expressionism and late-20th-century malaise to provoke the politeness out of audiences.
Beneath everything crushed and bruised is a revelation: these horror stories try to kill the concept of love but it always, somehow, by the skin of its teeth, survives. This is often forgotten.
Kane’s plays are rarely performed in Australia, though the Old Fitz Theatre, a black box underneath a pub in Woolloomooloo, Sydney, staged a production of 4:48 Psychosis in 2017 and is currently the home to a new production of Cleansed, directed by independent theatre-maker Dino Dimitriadis.
The AusStage database lists only two other productions of Cleansed in Australia in the play’s 24-year history, likely due in part both to its complicated reputation – during its debut season in Britain, several audience members fainted and many more walked out – and its confronting depictions of torture.
The violence in Cleansed is wielded liberally, but never without care or reason. With the right director at the helm and the correct structures in place to support the actors who must endure the illusion of these acts night after night, this play can create the singular but elusive theatrical experience that pulls you into a thought or emotion so deeply that you feel changed.
We are lucky that Dimitriadis took on the challenge. A skilful and intelligently thoughtful multidisciplinary artist, they have rooted around in the bloodshed to find the play’s soul and held tightly to it.
This happens, in part, because their heart and their work is often rooted in community. Dimitriadis knows how to connect with audiences and take care of them, even in heightened moments. It’s also reflected in their artistic practice: a mental-health professional is on standby for the cast each night, and Bayley Turner, an intimacy and consent consultant, is a key member of the creative team. When the actors perform love scenes or scenes of torture, knowing they have been protected extends that protection to the audience. Daring stories can be audaciously told and still be safe.
When we are safe, we are freer to engage. And Dimitriadis’s Cleansed rewards engagement.
In the script, Cleansed is set in a university. It seems only fitting that in Kane’s world a social institution doubles as a prison hosting experimental torture. But Dimitriadis removes the confines of defined space, a shift that seems, just as Kane’s work was in the ’90s, in step with the times: we can be trapped anywhere by the broken systems around us. Jeremy Allen’s set is all black walls that seem to close in on the characters. Benjamin Brockman and Morgan Moroney’s lighting emphasises shadow and dimension, frequently leaving us in the dark but occasionally giving way to brief, extraordinary lightness.
The occasional noise from the pub upstairs amplifies the setting and design: pain and abuse happen under our noses all the time in 2022, so of course people are laughing just metres away while a man is tortured to near-death. The line between Cleansed’s metaphors and the real world is blurrier than ever, and Dimitriadis has noticed.
In the play, Tinker (Danny Ball) conducts a series of shockingly cruel “experiments” on his subjects, testing their love for themselves – their will to live – and for each other. There’s Graham (Tommy Misa), an addict; Grace (Mây Trần), his sibling and lover; Rod (Charles Purcell) and Carl (Stephen Madsen), a couple newly committed to one another; and Robin (Jack Richardson), a sensitive, illiterate man. He blows off steam by watching the Woman (Fetu Taku), a peepshow dancer to whom he is attracted.
At first glance Cleansed may feel more like a series of vignettes than a play. Dimitriadis is skilled with the anatomy of singular moments, but their tender, courageous hand shapes each violent act in Kane’s dizzying arc towards an ambivalent ending that is both hopeful and hopeless, neither done nor undone. It sings.
The torture is unavoidable and the violence is bloody. A character is force-fed a box of chocolates one by one in a scene that feels nearly endless in its cruelty. That this violence frequently happens to queer and trans people makes it difficult to watch, but in Kane’s legacy her queerness and the queerness inherent in her plays are frequently ignored. Dimitriadis and the all-queer cast and team don’t shy away from the violence of homophobia and transphobia in the world of the play or the world outside its doors.
But it’s also startlingly – and perhaps never before so clearly – a love story. Graham is murdered by Tinker in the opening scene of the play, but he’s never really gone; he and Grace make love while, somehow, a sunflower blooms in the dark. Grace insists they are not a woman and this is never ignored or diminished by the production; there’s no hint of salaciousness to it, either. In Dimitriadis’s hands, and the hands of this superlative cast, challenges or restrictions to bodily autonomy aren’t about the violence: rather, the ordeals stress its importance.
And then there’s Rod, who can’t commit to forever with Carl, yet offers the deeply romantic declaration of a realist: “I love you now. I’m with you now. I’ll do my best, moment to moment, not to betray you.” Carl has a moment of betrayal under duress, but their love cannot be broken by extremity.
Carl is carved to pieces but finds a new way, each time, to express his love for Rod. His hands are cut off while writing and carried away, says the script, by rats – sound designer Benjamin Pierpoint, whose soundscape is a knife edge, full of both tension and threat, ensures we hear them. Carl then performs a loving, playful dance that makes your heart so light it lifts out of your chest.
When the play ends, it’s likely not the blood and gore you’ll remember but that dance and its remarkable expression of love. This production is an achievement, and also a correction. Dimitriadis explodes the myths that obscure Kane’s work and grants the playwright her full due, while demonstrating their own astonishing talent.
Cleansed is playing at the Old Fitz Theatre, Sydney, until July 2.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 25, 2022 as "Love’s work".
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