11/11/10, Lyric Hammersmith
1 hr 45 mins. No interval (there was one in the original production at the Royal Court in 1995, someone said, but the audience walked out in droves; this way they lock you in for the duration).
The notorious Sarah Kane shocker, and we've seen it at last. And frankly, none of us much enjoyed it. It owes a big debt to King Lear, to Beckett, to schlock-horror splatter movies and to reports of the war in Bosnia, but lacks the profundity and universal resonance of the first two, or the visceral impact of the third, and imports the fourth unconvincingly to Leeds.
The chief difficulty is that it's impossible to empathise with the characters, who seem drawn from stock and equipped with a repertoire of tics and verbal routines that don't quite add up. Beckettian bafflement and boredom was the result.
Some of the shock moments were pretty shocking. A soldier eats the eyes of a man he's just raped. A dead baby is eaten (truly revolting, that). But we wanted it to end not so much because it was shocking but because the violence made us uncomfortable without justification. And perhaps it's a reminder that the most powerful things are sometimes left unspoken or merely hinted at.
The scene is a hotel room. There are the sounds of civil unrest outside but the hotel seems to function normally, with room service and hot and cold running water. It's quite plush, though one of the first lines is "I've shat in better places than this".
There are just three characters. A middle-aged, alcoholic journalist (Danny Webb) apparently dying of lung cancer, a noisy boor who wears a gun in a shoulder hoslter. A girl (Lydia Wilson, whom we saw in Pains of Youth) of indeterminate age (16? 18? 21?) with whom he seems to have had a (presumably underage) sexual relationship at some point in the past. And a soldier (Aidan Kelly), who bursts in half-way through with a gun, abuses, rapes and mutilates the journalist (the girl having escaped through the bathroom window, apparently) and then lies dead during the last few scenes, though how he died we're not told and we don't see.
The characters have rudimentary backstories. The journalist has a wife and child. The girl has a mother and a younger brother with learning difficulties and, implausibly given the civil war outside and her apparent lack of education, she is hoping to get a job as PA in an advertising agency. The journalist scoffs at this, brtually, as he does virtually everything. We know he's a journaslist because at one point he phones through his story to a copytaker. It's about some tragic death abroad and he has presumably been to see the family, but the story he phones over is the kind of finished piece, including quotes from a Foreign office spokesman, that only a sub in the newsroom would produce, not a reporter on the road. The soldier too has a backstory: a girlfriend or wife who was brutally assaulted and killed. We are given the details though curiously I have forgotten them.
The dialogue, which is interspersed with long periods of silent action, is brutal, allusive and sometimes repetitive. The girls says she loves the journalist though what she means by that, and what we're meant to believe she means, is unclear. At the start he takes all his clothes off, grabs his willy and sasys "Suck on this". She refuses (too disgusted?) though later she does give him a blow-job. In bed overnight it seems he rapes her because she complains next morning of pain, struggles to get dressed and says she can't piss or shit; on the other hand, when they woke uop she was still wearing her bra and knickers. Was the assault imagined? Or does the actress not do nudity?
Halfway through there isd a massive explosion which destroys the hotel room leaving only a dark landscape of beams and struts, and the hotel bed. (Maybe it's this that kills the soldier??).
Towards the end the journalist, blinded, helpless and starving, is visited by the girl (why?) carrying a crying baby she's found. The baby dies and she buries it under the floorboards. At the end he digs the corpse up and starts to eat it, then climbs into the hole so that all that we can see of him is his head. It's immediately beneath a hole in the roof through which rain comes down to soak him. The girl returns (why had she gone? why does she come back?) and sharesd a morsel of food with him. By this stage the lights have gone down, leaving only a spotlight on the journalist's head. He says "Thank you". Blackout.
Redemption of sorts, I suppose, in an otherwise profoundly nihilistic play, though one that nags away at you demanding explanation and elucidation, which may be the mark of an effective piece of theatre.