A play at the National Theatre in London recently made headlines, but for an unusual reason. In the first 6 days of previews, 5 people fainted and 40 people left the auditorium apparently shocked at scenes of graphic violence and torture.
The play in question was Sara Kane’s 1998 Cleansed, directed by celebrated and controversial British director, Katie Mitchell. According to a report in The Guardian,
the revival of the production features characters being electrocuted, force-fed and tortured – including the removal of one character’s tongue 20 minutes into the play – which has proved too much for dozens of audience members during the first six performances. Five others were so overwhelmed they fainted and required medical attention. During one preview, the lights in the auditorium went up and ushers came into the audience to help a man who had collapsed.
Mitchell admitted the production had taken its toll on the cast, who all had “very strange nightmares where very extreme events take place”. She [said]: “We have to laugh a lot in order to balance the despair and the darkness of the material.” But she argued people’s shock at the violent production was also related to the fact it was written by a young woman. “There isn’t a big tradition of putting the violence of atrocity on stage in Britain,” she said. “We’re afraid of that dark female voice that insists we examine pornography and violence. We just don’t feel comfortable being asked to do those things, particularly by a woman.”
Amongst other things, this of course raises many questions about verisimilitude on stage, but when violence is clearly ‘done this well’, you have to commend the theatre practitioners behind it – both on and off stage. I say this not because I particularly enjoy watching human suffering being performed in front of me, but because I spend a lot time talking to younger students about why such acts only work when they are truly believable. Kane’s plays are never easy on the audience and nor are they meant to be and in Mitchell’s hands this production was bound to be particularly brutal. The play itself is based on a university campus turned interrogation centre, in which a series of misfits are subjected to vicious tests to prove their love, with scenes including hands being cut off, incest, electric shocks, murder and suicide amongst other horrors.
According to an excellent profile of her, British theatre’s queen in exile, written by Charlotte Higgins for The Guardian, Katie Mitchell provokes strong reactions:
Some think of her as a vandal, ripping apart classic texts and distorting them to her own dubious purpose. Others consider her to be the most important British director of theatre and opera at work today – indeed, among the greatest in the world. Her critics characterise her as high-minded and humourless, a kind of hatchet-faced governess intent on feeding her audiences with the improving and bleak. Others, though, talk about her gentleness, empathy and swiftness to burst into a joyous and slightly dirty laugh. One theatre professional told me that some agents only reluctantly put forward actors for Mitchell’s productions because of her fearsome reputation; and yet there are actors who have worked with her for 30 years.
Mitchell has been described as a director who polarises audiences like no other and in the way the critics have received Cleansed, she has clearly managed to do the same with this current production. One said that the play left him feeling drained rather than shocked into new awareness while another said you’ll either walk out or give it a standing ovation.
In an interview for the BBC strand Front Row, Mitchell said those who focus on the violence are missing the point:
All of the torture that is going on is led by a doctor whose making tests about love, its durability. The gay couple in it, the durability of their love is being tested, and they are being tortured to see whether their love will survive, and their love does. So love wins in this play, not violence.