They ran for the hills when Sarah Kane’s first play, “Blasted,” preemed at London’s Royal Court Theater in 1995. Critics recoiled from graphic scenes of murder, rape, mutilation and cannibalism, labeling the play “a disgusting feast of filth” and ignoring its apocalyptic message about the dehumanization of modern society. Would that we still had the innocence to be shocked by the atrocities depicted in helmer Sarah Benson’s uncompromising revival for Soho Rep. More than a dozen years after the play’s initial production and almost a decade since the 28-year-old playwright’s suicide, her metaphorical vision has become literal reality.
The sly wisdom of Louisa Thompson’s set is its pretense of being an ordinary hotel room in an ordinary city — the kind of sleek and soulless room where an older man might take a young woman with the reasonable hope of getting her in the sack.
It is a great credit to helmer Benson (Soho Rep’s highly reliable a.d.) that she maintains this fiction for as long as she does — glossing casually over tell-tale lines (“looks like there’s a war on”) that will later take on heavier meaning. That goes double for Reed Birney (“Stuff Happens”) and Marin Ireland (“Cyclone”), a couple of utterly brave and true thesps who are heroically convincing in two of the most difficult roles you’re likely to see this season.
For the entire first half of the play, Birney sustains his unflinching reading of Ian, a hard-drinking, heavy-smoking newspaper reporter who has made a career of exploiting the victims of newsworthy violence. (The feature he calls in to his editor is a small masterpiece of cynical yellow journalism.) Given his occupation, it’s no wonder that Ian carries a gun. And given his racist views and general contempt for humanity, it seems only just that he should be dying of lung disease.
In an extraordinarily nuanced perf, Ireland is no less consistent as Cate, a compliant young woman whose ego is so battered and bruised, her physical and emotional sensitivities are almost pathological. Called upon to stutter and shudder and fall to the floor in blackout fits, thesp is so convincing — and so sympathetic — that the sexual mistreatment of her defenseless character is painful to watch.
But watch we must, because Ian’s degradation of Cate, a former mistress he claims to love, is at the heart of Kane’s thesis about the brutality of man. To Kane, man’s inhumanity to man begins with man’s inhumanity to woman. Once past that civilizing taboo, man can go to war, which gives him license to kill, maim, rape, sodomize and otherwise destroy anyone he pleases. He can even eat babies.
These are the events of the second half of the play, after a shattering blast (courtesy of sound designer Matt Tierney) puts a decisive end to the illusion of normalcy. With the once-elegant hotel room blown to smithereens and a wild-eyed soldier (Louis Cancelmi) with an automatic rifle at the door, the mise-en-scene is transformed into an urban battlefield.
In this existential hellhole, even the most civilized human being is forced to confront the bestiality of his nature. And while no one onstage is more frightening to watch than the intensely focused Cancelmi, both Ian and Cate are driven to explore the depths of their own barbarism.
Unlike her dramatic role model, Edward Bond (“Saved”), Kane was not striving for in-your-face naturalism with this first play; in fact, her later plays are far more poetic. But the liberties she took with dramatic form in 1995 no longer seem so radical. Paradoxically, her surreal vision has taken on authentic reality for any nation that happens to be at war.