Theatre Critic and Journalist

Twenty Years On, Can Blasted Still Shock?

Twenty Years On, Can Blasted Still Shock?

Published on WhatsOnStage, 12.01.2015

Twenty years ago today, Blasted had its first performance at the Royal Court Upstairs. On that day, a Thursday, it was just another debut play by just another young playwright: Sarah Kane, 23.

A week later, it would be something else entirely: a cause célèbre, subject of a media scrum, and, as the Daily Mail infamously christened it, that “disgusting feast of filth.” Two critics – Charles Spencer and the late Jack Tinker – had left the press performance and called their news desks about its contents: anal rape, cannibalism, eyes sucked from their sockets. For the following week, the papers tried to outdo one another in their outrage.

Today, two decades on, it’s something else again: a stage classic; a set text studied by A Level students; a seminal moment in British theatre history; the beginning of a career, not to mention a life, cut horribly short.

Next month, it gets two revivals – one at the Sheffield Crucible, directed by Richard Wilson, the other opening The Other Room in Cardiff. It will be fascinating to see how – and if – the play still works.

Because I’m not sure it can – at least, certainly not in the same way it worked in that first week. Blasted has lost its ability to shock an audience as one. It can still repulse a room, but it can’t shock as it once did.

To shock, a play needs to be, at some level, an unknown quality. We check into that Leeds hotel room with too much baggage these days. We arrive braced for Blasted, steeled against its savagery. When the Lyric Hammersmith revived the play in 2010, I remember an audience member turning to her neighbour to boast of “having thrown up a little in my mouth”. That’s not the spirit of the play. That’s turning up to tuck into that ‘feast of filth’.

More problematic – and I’ll chuck in a spoiler warning at this point – is an audience that anticipates the arrival of the soldier and the explosion that rips through both the hotel room and the play itself. It’s that gesture – that rupture of space and time – that really defines the play and arriving forewarned and forearmed robs it of its real, raw power.

And yet, isn’t that idea all the more horrifyingly familiar today? It might have been possible, in 1995, to talk of a distance between Leeds and Bosnia. Not today, it isn’t. Not when gunmen burst into the offices of a satirical magazine or hold a kosher supermarket hostage, just as Kane’s soldier stumbled into that expensive, generic hotel room. But then, consider the distance between Paris and Nigeria, where Boko Haram massacred 2,000 people to comparative media silence.

Blasted can’t ambush an audience as it did 20 years ago and that makes it a fundamentally different play. But we live in a fundamentally different world, one that Kane’s play pre-empted in the most awful, awful way.

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