The Other Room has undergone a transformation and after a certain amount of hype, has opened its floodgates with the aim of producing a torrent of new Welsh plays, as well as a foundation of post-1950 classics. The first of these is Blasted.
The bus journey home after seeing Blasted – my first live Sarah Kane play, having read them all – was an interesting one. Unsure of how I felt I started projecting my feelings onto the world around me. A large boxer dog was wailing loudly fairly continuously for a few minutes, before a man approached it with his own, smaller, more placid dog held under his arm, like a gun. He held his dog close to the boxer so that they could sniff each other for a while before he returned to his seat. The boxer fell silent, its anxiety eased.
I felt like that boxer. I wanted to howl with it. I needed someone to sniff, to connect with, and to understand.
Blasted is not a good play, nor an enjoyable play: those are simply the wrong words. It is one heck of an experience however, and you will feel something, whether that’s disgust or arousal, horror or empathy.
This is Sarah Kane’s first play, and when it opened at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in 1995 it was called a “disgusting piece of filth” by Jack Tinker of the Daily Mail. This opinion was shared by many.
However, many critics backtracked in subsequent years, such as The Guardian’s Michael Billington who said “I got it wrong”. Since her suicide in 1999 – leaving five plays and one short film behind – she has gained further reverence posthumously.
Blasted manages to pile horror upon horror. It is only by going to such dark extremes that certain philosophical ideas come to light, and a moral is found. What makes one death worse than another? A life more valuable? To paraphrase one of the lines: your arse is not special.
In the face of abjection, each character has their own defence mechanisms; their way of rationalising the irrational. It is a wonderfully complex exploration of human interaction and broken, vulnerable minds.
Louise Collins plays the innocent Cate, and manages to straddle the chasm between waif and harbinger-of-doom. She gives us and Cate her all, complete with tears, snot and unnerving blackouts. From the moment she steps fresh-faced and wide-eyed into the room, to the pallid, red-eyed bowing at the end, she undergoes a slow catharsis throughout the play. A brutal transformation and performance.
In contrast, Christian Patterson is the foul-mouthed, capricious Ian – a tabloid journalist paying for the two’s stay in a hotel in Leeds. He is every bit the antithesis of Cate, who he manipulates and hurts in order to appease himself. Christian bares all; despite his character’s anger and bigotry, he allows us to see the hurt and the fear. There is humour too, which bobs to the surface when desolation sits like oil.
If Ian is the great white, Simon Nehan gives us the Megalodon as the Soldier. He is vicious and feral; yet for all his barbarism he too is darkly comic. He executes the bloodiest and most heinous acts that society is too ashamed to call its own. Blasted is arguably an anti-war play; it certainly shows war to be the worst of humanity. Within a character that is extreme and highly symbolic, Simon mines little personal nuggets of truth and reason.
Director Kate Wasserberg has no doubt spent a long time with the actors, pushing them to places which had me squirming in my seat and neurotically twirling my pencil. A feeling of tension prevails throughout.
The production benefits from a commissioned soundtrack by composer Nick Gill. Piano, marimba, whisperings and static haunt and fill the darkness between scenes.
The Other Room really is small: with just 44 seats the audience are in the hotel room in Leeds, which despite being expensive looks unsettling from the start. A large and oppressive painting evocative of the River Styx hangs above the neatly-made bed, contrasting with angelic white curtains that surround the venue’s fire escape. There is a smoky whiff of The Royal Court.
Kane said of the theatre “I keep coming back in the hope that someone in a darkened room somewhere will show me an image that burns itself into my mind”. Last night, completely by chance, a cloud of dense white smoke curled behind Ian and the Soldier, and formed what I thought was a ghost. I was simultaneously horrified and praising of the production values. It soon dissipated and I realised my mistake, but I am thankful The Other Room provided such a personal and uncanny experience.
To return to my bus journey home: I sat beside a man listening to heavy metal and thought how anxious and stressed I would be listening to that- why on Earth does he?
Then I realised, Blasted is heavy metal.
As part of The Other Room’s ‘Life in Close Up’ season, it runs until March 7th; tickets are available from their website www.otherroomtheatre.com.
I recommend getting along and seeing what this budding new theatre has to offer.
Review by Eifion Ap Cadno
Production photo by Pallasca Photography