Daniel Evans, artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, has established a tradition of producing entire seasons dedicated to the work of one writer. But this month’s programme, which is devoted to the complete works of Sarah Kane, is a bit different.
For one thing, so far the seasons have been focused on living writers (such as David Hare) whereas Kane committed suicide in 1999, just days after her 28th birthday.
It’s also true to say that during her tragically short career – she wrote just five plays and one short film, Skin – her poetic but fiercely pared-down and intense, often cruel and disturbingly violent plays created a shockwave. Many critics, especially British ones, loathed her with as much passion as she put into her writing. It’s only latterly that the austere beauty of her work has been reconsidered, to such an extent that in 2005 the theatre director Dominic Dromgoole observed that she was “without doubt the most performed new writer on the international circuit”.
Her first, probably most controversial, play was Blasted (“a disgusting feast of filth” according to the ever-vigilant Daily Mail) which premièred at London’s Royal Court in 1995. As that initial controversy raged, Kane, who admitted to being heavily influenced by Edward Bond’s equally shocking Saved, said: “My intention was to be absolutely truthful about abuse and violence. All of the violence in the play has been carefully plotted and dramatically structured to say what I want about war.”
Twenty years on, it also opens the Sheffield season, directed by none other than well-known director and actor (of One Foot in the Grave fame) Richard Wilson who’s an associate director there.
“No, I didn’t know the play before Daniel told me we were doing a Sarah Kane season and asked me to read Blasted,” he admits. “And I didn’t know Sarah, though we must have overlapped at the Royal Court. It’s where she started out, and I was working there a lot at that time.
“But I found it fascinating and realised immediately that it was bold and powerful, so I wanted to do it. In fact, this is the first non-new play I’ve directed for some time. I just enjoy new writing and always have. It’s what theatre should be about.
“But this feels modern and as relevant and raw as ever,” he contends. “With its mix of war and sexual politics, it could have been written today, don’t you think?
“I’ve certainly never directed anything as violent before and it is horrible. But we’re living in horrible times. It opens with a rape scene in a Leeds hotel and the next minute we’re in war-torn Croatia. While you don’t see the rape, there is a moment when someone sucks their eyeballs out and chews them.
“It’s tough stuff and some people will be shocked, I don’t doubt.”
With anal rape and cannibalism? Oh, I think you can count on that, Richard, even 20 years on from its première. Perhaps even the odd muttered “I don’t believe it” from some of the same Sheffield folk who turned up to see him in Beckett’s Krapp’s Last Tape at the theatre “because Victor Meldrew was playing Krapp”.
On the other hand, “that’s a pretty difficult play, but they seemed to appreciate it, then stayed for the post-show discussions and took it all really seriously.
“So we’ll have to see if we produce much of a furore. Still, I do think Daniel is being brave to put on the season.”
Evans, who is directing two semi-staged readings of Phaedra’s Love and Cleansed as part of the season, remembers that he actually “had the great privilege of knowing Sarah Kane. I got to act in two world premières of her plays. In fact, I actually got to act alongside her when she stepped in at the last moment to take over from the leading lady who had injured her spine late on in the run. I remember how ‘real’ Sarah’s acting was. She made our acting look fake and theatrical.
“Looking back at her brief career 15 years after her death, I realise that her acting was characteristic of what I remember most about her as a person and as a writer. She was a truth seeker. She believed passionately that there wasn’t anything that couldn’t be represented in the theatre, however beautiful or cruel. If something existed, then it could, and should, be portrayed and discussed. She is undoubtedly one of the most courageous people I’ve known.
“In her own way, Sarah Kane’s writing changed the face of British theatre. Much has been said and written about her death, but it’s important to say that Sarah had a wonderful, dark sense of humour, and a huge heart. Her plays are full of tenderness and a yearning for love.”
By Kevin Bourke
Photos by Mark Douet
Blasted is at the Sheffield Crucible Studio from February 4-21, 2015, with Crave from March 6-21 and 4.48 Psychosis from March 7-21. Phaedra’s Love is on February 13 and Skin/Cleansed on March 20.
More info: http://www.sheffieldtheatres.co.uk/