Sarah Kane: The dominatrix of In-yer-Face Theatre

 

Sarah Kane: The dominatrix of In-Yer-Face Theatre

The 1990s was the era for angsty grunge, denim on denim co-ords and MTV culture. It was also the decade that saw the brutalist style revived through provocative ‘in-yer-face’ theatre genre. In 2001 theatre critic Aleks Sierz published his book In-Yer-Face Theatre: British Drama Today, in which he walks his reader through the shocking world of 90s theatre and claims that what characterises in-yer-face is the way it ‘forces us to look at ideas of feelings we would normally avoid because they are too painful, too frightening, too unpleasant or too acute’. In short, this theatre style pokes at the exposed nerves of society with a “vocabulary of disgust” that evokes a certain antipathy against what is filthy but also natural and, at the basest level, human. Critics at the time felt this evocation and dealt with a firm fist reviews which defamed a series of plays as ‘disgusting feat[s] of filth’ and sordid little travesties. Despite critics searing repulsion for the live performances, it is their outraging quality that makes these plays so special and efficacious because in their uncensored nature they reveal the truths of the society that encompasses all of us.

Sarah Kane is a notable figure in the in-yer-face theatre movement and was a playwright that suffered at the hands of prudish critics. Born in ’71, Kane was brought up in a religious home with a teacher mother and Daily Mail journalist father. Her passion for literacy came from theatre school, having resented academia before, and saw her achieve an MA in playwriting at Birmingham university. She was in her mid-twenties during the explosion of 90s explicit staging and added her name to the “brat pack” of writers who were exploring this style. 1995 saw the production of her first and perhaps most controversial play Blasted which in all its “gory“saw mixed reviews at the hands of theatrical critics.

 

Explicitly brutal in its theatrics, the play fantastically visualises human fragility through her staging of sexually abusive relationships, veneer personalities and the savage destruction of war. The play begins with a journalist and a former lover who meet in a hotel room… which although sounds like the start to a bad joke, in the end it has no punchline. Focusing primarily on protagonists Ian and Cate, the first “half” uses more naturalistic tendencies which force the onlooker to watch as hypermasculinity compels Ian to forcibly rape Cate, as her anxieties cause her to lose consciousness, intermingled with conversations about Ian’s tabloid coverage of national tragedies and Cate’s working-class status. After a blast the stage falls apart and Kane flexes a surrealist muscle with full-frontal violence from the rape of Ian by a soldier, to the King-Lear-esk eating of eyeballs, to crying during masturbation, to taking a shit on the floor and finally ending with the eating of a dead baby.

Yes, it’s disgusting but doesn’t that seem to be the point? Described as having “no bounds of decency” by the Daily Mail and condemned from the stage by pro-censorship critics, Blasted was scorned by theatre critic figure-heads alike. Kane responded to these rejections claiming that “a play by a middle-aged male journalist who rapes a young woman and is raped and mutilated himself can’t have endeared me to a theatre full of middle-aged male critics”.  And she’s not wrong, but while Kane didn’t befriend certain critics, she was praised by many who saw the true mastery behind her debut production. Influenced by the Westernised gender norms, the socio-political crisis after Thatcher and the derogation of humanity during the Bosnian war, it’s made to shock but also, as Kane puts it, be a “hopeful play”. Full of cathartic pain, Blasted makes its viewer aware of their own morality and just how senseless we have all become to the onslaught of graphic violence and the barbarous actions of humankind against one another.

Following Blasted, was the release of her screen play Skin a deafening cacophony of constant sound for eleven minutes. Along with its intense sounds, the short follows skinhead Billy through what would seem like an average day to him: wakes up and gets dressed, draws a swastika on his hand, goes for breakfast with his mates (fellow skin heads) in local greasy spoon, and then savagely enacts a racial attack on a black wedding party. The plot then finds him impulsively drawn to his neighbour opposite Marcia, who within moments of meeting has sex with despite her blackness. Marcia reverses the power dynamics after their meeting, seeing her dominate him mentally and physically through a series of blackouts that flash from images of them have sex, to forcing him to eat dog food, and ending with the mutilation of Billy’s skin. Its final scene finds Billy rescued from his suicide attempt by his black neighbour who he pretends to shoot in the first scene, reborn out of his skin by the side of a very clinical looking toilet.  However, once more, this reflection on society’s ethical apathy was the source of scorn from mass media outlets and was largely reduced to “one of the most violent and racially offensive programmes ever to be made for television” in the UK. Despite this, the heavily symbolic piece focuses on a motif that runs throughout her short list of works, that is the deep-seated love for a hated object of desire, disillusioning her viewer to the absurdity of extreme prejudice.

Phaedra’s Love was Kane’s second play to hit the stage, inspired by Seneca’s Phaedra Kane yanks the Greek Tragedy through hell and then into the 20thcentury. Opening with a masturbation scene, the play -in true style- isn’t afraid of grabbing taboo by the horns and ultimately finds her protagonists riding this bull into immoral sexual lands. In her black comedy her four major characters are all situated in a web of forbidden lust which begins with Phaedra consumed by her desire for her step-son and ends with sordid sexual acts between Phaedra’s husband Theseus and her daughter Stope and disembowelments. In amongst the dizzying relationship ties and fellatio there is a deeper introspective dramatic intention Kane had for this play: to look at the extremes of love (a theme that would haunt her final two plays). This exploration of what it means to be loved and be the lover, seemingly concludes that all in all lust and love are impossible to resist and will inevitably consume either victim.

 

Cleansedwas her third showcase and once more is about love. The play looks at the how far a person is willing to go in order to prove love and the pain of the human condition that is afflicted with the power to feel love. Taking place in a concentration camp, the leader of the gruesome sadistic action on stage is Tinker who relentlessly pushes a handful of characters’ capacities for agony and affection. The play is, once more, full of distressing images that is supposed to represent that violent annihilation that that power of love does to the self.

While her representation of what “love”ismay be repulsive to some, Kane claimed that the “plays that I consider to be about hope, faith and love seem to have depressed everyone else.” Clearly, her theatre was meant be more than just taken at face value. Her penultimate play Crave, was an extreme look at the transparent meaning audiences were taking away from her pieces and presented them with a one-act play that shows four characters inability to stop talking about their needs and desires. Although abstract in style, the play takes a direct look into the events and emotions that have created the nameless characters the audience see before them, the good, the bad and the disturbing. The absurdist stylistic direction only but adds to the simplicity of the play’s purpose: exposing the isolating quality of subjectivity and the brittleness of life.

Her final play only saw the bright lights of the theatre a year and a half after her suicide in 1999. Undressing the deterioration of the mind, 4:48 Psychosis uses the darkest hour before dawn to represent the darkest areas of the self. Through a series of spasmodic chunks of dialog, the poetic idioms that make up the script of the play are the manifestations of a mind in anguish and a person experiencing a psychological breakdown. Dealing with experiences of suicidal thoughts, medical treatment and repressed memories, many have claimed that this play effectively transcribes the inner-most melancholy thoughts that ultimately allured her to death.

Despite her tragic end, Kane is an inspiration for any playwright or creative who isn’t afraid of breaking a few eggs to truly reveal what a bloody and disgusting omelette individual are passively ingesting daily. And although she was anti “movement”, with her statement that “Movements define retrospectively and always on grounds of imitation”, there’s no doubt that her works were saturated with political commentary, intersectional feminist concerns and tropes borrowed from writers such as Beckett, Pinter and Barker that are as relevant now as they were almost two decades ago (whether she liked to put a label on it or not). She was a maverick of the theatre and found herself amongst fellow notorious playwrights Mark Ravenhill, Anthony Neilson and Phyllis Nagy. A dominatrix of her art, Sarah caned her audiences for their stupidity with obscene imagery and offered them an opportunity to be disenchanted from the comfort of ethical indifference.

 

Words by Aimee Williams Maynard