Old Debates: Cleansed at the National Theatre

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“I went to see Cleansed because I know that torture and brutality happen in the world, and I believe that it is crucial that art responds to this in some way. So I went to see what this production had to say.”

The National Theatre’s production of Cleansed, by Sarah Kane, is causing a fuss. The response spans from vitriolic condemnation (Susannah Clapp’s review in the Observer) to tentative praise (Andrzej Lukowski’s review for TimeOut). Usually I love mixed reviews of shows. It tends to mean that a reaction has been incited in the audience. But this fuss is 18 years old, and I cannot find it in me to get all riled up. Well, I get worked up for different reasons.

I should explain.

Cleansed is a dystopian exploration of torture. Tinker is the sadistic, Orwellian ruler of the little world of the play. He tortures the inhabitants in a seemingly clinical attempt to understand love. The play overflows with graphic scenes of violence and after having watched this production from the second row, I can tell you from personal experience that it is disturbing. I do no delight in observing brutality, but I did not go to be comforted. I went because I know that torture and brutality happen in the world, and I believe that it is crucial that art responds to this in some way. So I went to see what this production had to say.

Sarah Kane (the author, ed) believed something similar. She thought that there should be nothing you cannot put on stage. Her point was that as soon as you say something should not be staged, you take a step towards trying to pretend that it does not exist. Kane was causing much consternation back in the nineties. Because of their extremity, it was difficult not to be polarized. On the one side, there were the political-correctness mongers, yelling about how obscene it all was. On the other, there were open-minded audiences (and a lot of theatre makers) who hailed her work as revolutionary, and a necessary development in British Theatre. What gets me worked up is that it feels like we’re back having that same debate this time. It feels terribly regressive.

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A scene from Cleansed. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.

The first thing to hit the news about this production was that people were fainting. Oooh, all the crazy things happening on stage were causing people to faint. And then, horror of horrors, people were walking out. Our delicate sensibilities in the First World (or perhaps only in Britain) do not like to be confronted with the extremities of life elsewhere. In a modern culture of hyper political-correctness, many people seem to feel that they have a right to be insulated against anything that offends them.

The commentary and reviews about Cleansed fixate on comparing the play to its original production 18 years ago. It’s as though people are having difficulty taking the production on its own terms. How much more interesting, perhaps, to consider the dialogue between Cleansed and what Islamic State is doing? There have been people thinking in these terms and fascinating debates are happening. But I wonder whether we’re missing the point when we get stuck worrying about how harrowing the play is. Perhaps instead, mainstream theatre has become too sanitized, rather than Cleansed being too extreme.

From the offended camp, a flurry of tired questions gets flung at the public, and the pontificating begins. Here are three of the criticisms I find most objectionable. I come across them regularly in the media and even with my theatre colleagues.

  • “Is this production better or worse than the 1998 original?” Loud, polarized opinions everywhere. But I think this is entirely missing the point. A 2016 production is dealing with a different world. The play is offering us the opportunity to consider what it’s saying about today.
  • “Does this production respond to something today, or is it simply gore for gore sake?” A very convenient flag to wave if you want to dismiss this production. Critics were calling Kane ‘filthy’ back in 1998. Here’s an answer: yes, it is depicting disgusting activity. Let go of that and think about why it’s being presented.
  • “Shouldn’t they have found a less literal way of doing the violence? I mean really, why should we sit through such brazen displays of gratuity?” Another way of brushing the production under the carpet. It’s amazing how everyone becomes an expert at what should have been done if they don’t like what they saw.

The final question frustrates me more than the others. I have come across it frequently, worryingly often among theatre makers. My analysis of the question is this: “the violence offended me, because it made me feel something icky. You have no right to make me feel icky, so I unilaterally condemn you for doing it.” But this is theatre, right? No one is actually getting hurt. We all know that. It’s metaphorical by definition.

So why do a play like Cleansed? I’ve already offered Sarah Kane’s answer: this kind of violence happens. It’s not some remote memory of a barbaric time, now long gone. It is woven into the modern world. How many beheadings has Islamic State done? How many children are forced into the brutalist militia in Africa? How many women have had acid thrown in their faces for daring to challenge a crippled form of obsessive patriarchy? I could go on, but I think my point has been made.

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A scene from Cleansed. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.

There is a side to all this which I don’t have space to properly address. I’ll summarise my feelings. Sarah Kane isn’t the only enfant terrible this time. Perhaps part of the reason for all the hoo-ha is because Katie Mitchell is directing. She dismantles texts and reconstructs them around her own directorial vision. We in the UK are not supposed to like her auteur style of directing. We in the UK are supposed to put text first, biblically, at the expense of basically anything. Mitchell does not do that and therefore we are supposed to box her away as that naughty, disrespectful child who just doesn’t understand how things are done here. Bah, humbug.

I want to conclude with a rather larger point, and perhaps a call to arms. I am a freelance director and I am sick of being made to justify why I am an artist. It’s only ever non-artists who make this demand of me. Under their dismissive, condescending gaze, I begin to flounder: “um, well, I make theatre because I believe I have something to say about the world I find myself living in. You see, theatre, at its core, is a storytelling art form and stories seem to me to be a good way of reflecting my experiences of the world and so maybe say something about yours …” Blah blah, all true, but wait. Why are you a lawyer? Why does the world need accountants? Can you justify why your job so fundamental to the functioning of the world?

This is the core of the problem. When artists make tame, light, entertainments, we can be categorized as clowns to lighten the burden of everyone else’s heavy lives. But if we confront people with unpalatable realities, question accepted norms, then we need to be able to offer rigorous justifications. Why should the National put on a production of Cleansed? Go on, convince me.

How easy it is to squash an artist’s work. Yet every oppressive regime begins by censoring artists. Food for thought.

“When artists make tame, light, entertainments, we can be categorized as clowns to lighten the burden of everyone else’s heavy lives. But if we confront people with unpalatable realities, question accepted norms, then we need to be able to offer rigorous justifications.”

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Tom Mothersdale in Cleansed. Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.

 

Cleansed is on at the newly restored Dorfman Theatre until 5 May. The run has been sold out, but there is hope! There are 2 ways you can still get tickets:

  • Friday Rush. Every Friday, at 13:00, the theatre released a limited number of £20 tickets for the next week’s performances.
  • Day Tickets. If you are willing to queue in person, possibly from quite early in the morning, you can nab yourself a £15 ticket.

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