The National Theatre's production of Sarah Kane's Cleansed should be seen by anyone who thinks that theatre is boring, or old-fashioned, or irrelevant, or just not for them. Because this show - I promise you this is true - will get under your skin. It will upset you terribly. It will have moments that fill you with bewildering joy. You might hate it, but you won't just hate it. You will feel deeply during it. You will never have felt so much in a theatre. It will puzzle you too. You will experience moments that feel comfortlessly cruel and you will have moments that feel swirlingly loving. It will feel unavoidable and it will haunt you. It will stay with you for the rest of your life. This is what theatre is for.
This article is full of spoilers. There's no way of avoiding that. You'll have to live with that, sorry.
If you don't know Cleansed already, well it's pretty tough to describe, but I'll have a go. At the beginning of the play Graham, at his own insistence, is given a massive injection of crack into his eyeball by Tinker. His sister Grace comes to Tinker's institution some months later to collect his clothes. She wears his clothes and decides she wants to be treated. Graham appears to her and they have sex. Grace befriends another inmate/resident of the institution, Robin, whom she teaches to read and write; he is tortured and then kills himself on finally understanding what his thirty-year incarceration will mean. Rod and Carl are two other resident/inmates; they are lovers and Tinker tests their protestations of love brutally by cutting out Carl's tongue, cutting off his hands and feet. Grace is brutally attacked and eventually is operated upon, giving her a set of male genitals. Tinker regularly visits a dancing woman in a booth. He seems to desire her, maybe love her. Eventually they make love. Grace, although united with Graham by virtue of her surgical hermaphroditism, ends the play in despair having both gained and lost her brother.
In some ways, the pairing of Sarah Kane and Katie Mitchell is a no-brainer: two great experimental theatremakers, poets of the theatre, women obsessed with the power of theatrical images, both drawn to the wintry edges of the dramatic canon, unflinchingly serious artists with wicked senses of humour. But in some ways, it is a clash of opposites. Sarah Kane's plays were increasingly abstract, subjective, metatheatrical, in which the outside worlds are ambiguous, confused, uncertain - maybe these are plays about a vision of an ambiguous, confused, uncertain world. Katie Mitchell's directing is characterised by absolutely meticulous realism, by which I mean she creates completely realised worlds, concrete and foursquare and entire, both in design and acting. Katie Mitchell's is a theatre of naturalist means (if not ends); Kane's is a theatre opposed to naturalism. Could they clash?
They don't, not at all. This is a seamless collaboration. What Katie Mitchell's production does is ground the imagistic, dreamlike juxtapositions of scenes in Kane's text, finding in it a rigour and logic and ferocity that will convince even the most sceptical anti-Kaneans (apart from Quentin Letts). The play emerges more profound and mature than I've ever seen it before. If you ever had any doubts in the back of your mind that this play might be a bit, I don't know, teenage? A bit angsty? A bit emo? Banish those thoughts; this is a huge and rich piece of theatrical writing.
Mitchell has taken extremely seriously the light suggestion in the play that the events take place in a building that used to be a university. Alex Eales's set is what looks like a service entrance to some university facility. Doors right and left, a flight of steps up to a mezzanine passageway, its windows overgrown with ivy. Stage right on the ground floor there's a caged accessway. The institutional paint is peeling; the tiles are broken and some are missing; trees have grown through the floor in places. There are electric shutter controls and buzzers everywhere and very functional lighting and it's all filthy.
What this does is (at least) two things: first, it makes the dreamlike quality of the play even more uncanny and strange and unsettling. It starts with the two trees that are growing through the floor; a strange inside-out image that could be real, but could be something from a dream too. The solidity of these walls and the doors makes it even stranger when locked doors suddenly fall open and padlocks melt away. In a brilliant move, Mitchell has Michelle Terry's Grace on stage virtually all the time; it's ambiguous always whether she is seeing or imagining the events unfolding before us. She is a ghost in her own machine, her bright red dress burning through the muted near-monochrome of the opening, which then passes firelike from body to body as the evening wears on..
And second, it does something horrible and compelling to the violence. This is a very violent plays; dismemberments, rapes, forced feeding, surgical procedures, gunfire, physical assaults, injections, insertions, a hanging. In the premiere production (which, let me say, I loved - it is one of the performances that taught me what theatre might be) James Macdonald found surreal, oblique, non-naturalist imagery for all of the violence. It was heart-stoppingly daring and insistent. But here the violence is all very real. When Tinker threatens to push a pole into Carl's rectum (and up through his body avoiding all the vital organs till it emerges at the shoulder), we see the pole, we see it lubricated, Carl is strapped into a chair, his trousers yanked down, he is tipped over and - foul, brilliant detail - a cardboard bowl is placed beneath him to catch any effluence. It's the concern for cleanliness that makes the violence filthy. As the play goes on, it's not so much the violence itself but the anticipation; a plastic sheet is unfolded and spread across the ground, a trolley of surgical equipment is wheeled in by an orderly, and the torture has already started.
By making the play so real, much of it springs into new vivid life. One of the most difficult aspects of the play is the dancing Woman; clearly it's some kind of exploration of pornography, voyeurism, sexual exploitation on Kane's part. But Kane being Kane, it's never a simple matter of finger-wagging condemnation. Kane feels - you sense - complicit in the desire to see the woman's forced availability But how to stage that without simply duplicating the voyeurism and not the complexity? The problem is briliantly solved here because here the woman, played with intense simplicity by Natalie Klamer, seems completely, vulnerably, awfully real. She isn't a figment or a hallucination or an allegory or a metonym. She doesn't stand for something. She isn't an argument. She was a young woman, physical and demarcated and mortal.
Mitchell has also surrounded the action with black-masked, black-clothed figures who sometimes appear to be functionaries in the institution, bringing on and taking off equipment, helping with the - ha ha - surgical procedures. But sometimes they appear to be ghost mourners, perhaps images from Graham's funeral, if he had one; we see them walking on with umbrellas and flowers and an urn. Mitchell has grabbed something from Bunraku here, the black-masked puppeteers who are both seen and not seen, visible and invisible.
And that's what this production is all about, the doubleness of theatre. I've never been more struck by the play of doubling in all senses that runs through this play - and Mitchell has emphasised and doubled the doubling in many ways. Grace and Graham are mirror images of each other. The dancing woman is also Grace. Robyn echoes Grace by wearing her clothes; Grace wears Robin's clothes, which were once worn by Graham. At one moment in this production, the dancer Grace is watched by Robin (dressed in Grace's clothes) who is then comforted by Grace; we are watching the Three Graces (and indeed the staging gives us echoes of Canova's statue several times). The box of chocolates that Tinker forces Robin to eat has a double layer. More subtly, everyone and everything seems to have two functions, slightly overlaid on each other. This is a university that is also a prison. Tinker is a healer who is also a torturer. Grace is both persecuted (by Tinker) and deliberate and inadvertent persecutor (of Robin). Grace is both woman and man. In Scene 7 Graham and Robin speak lines in unison, the unison only emphasising their doubleness. The title itself has this duality, suggesting both death and rebirth.
In this production, these doubles are redoubled. Rod and Carl are dressed very similarly, almost doubles of each other. Grace doubles the woman, mirroring her dancing, as she earlier mirrored Graham's. Graham, whenever he speaks, is amplified, his words repeating, displaced and doubling. At the end, Carl is forced to take the dancing woman's place, dressed in Grace's clothes. There are chains of doubling and substitution that run through all the characters: Rod echoes Carl who echoes the Woman who echoes Grace who echoes Graham who is echoed by Robin.
Only Tinker is who he is. In fact Tinker seems to be a character dead set on reducing ambiguity and revealing things for what they are. He hears Carl promise eternal love, promising he'd die for Rod and he puts it to the test. He conducts electro-shock therapy on Grace which seems to have the effect of taking Graham out of her life. In this production, he tape records Rod and Carl's conversations and plays them back, pinning down meanings. Tinker seems to be trying to find a moment of pure non-substitution, a moment were things are just what they are. But he doesn't have the resources or the ambition; Tinker is just tinkering round the edges. He seems briefly to find it with the Woman: 'Are you here?' she asks, 'Now [...] With me'? It's a moment of sheer itselfness. This, here, now. But it doesn't last. How can it last? In this production, he can't let it last. He shoots her.
The prison is love. But wait, it's so much more complicated than that sounds. In one of the key sources for this play, In A Lover's Discourse, Roland Barthes compares the extreme lover to an inmate of Dachau. Immediately, he is rightly horrified by the comparison ('Is it not indecent to compare the situation of a love-sick subject to that of an inmate of Dachau?', p. 49), but he pursues the thought. Both are in a situation that will destroy them. The catastrophic lover, says Barthes, is someone for whom 'I have projected myself into the other with such power that when I am without the other I cannot recover myself, regain myself: I am lost, forever'. This thought, elaborated and extended, runs right through Cleansed. It is impossible to be apart from the loved one and it is impossible to be fully united. You can't be two and you can't be one. Instead, it's this in-between, doubled and ghosted existence that is the only state in which love, true love can function. Grace and Graham begin the play as two - but Graham is dead, so Grace's place in the two is incomplete, asymmetric, marked by loss. Grace and Graham end the play as one - but now there is no differentiation, no other, no love; she is again marked with loss. Love asks us to be two and one.
Because it's in the doubleness that there's hope. Early in the play, Rod declares 'I love you now / I'm with you now / I'l do my best, moment to moment, not to betray you. Now' and I once described it as 'the most genuinely romantic speech in contemporary British playwriting' and I was wrong. It is heartfelt and meaningful and, in its way it's rather beautiful, but that's not where the play's heart is. The play's heart is in the extravagence of Carl's promises 'I'll always love you... I'll never betray you ... I'll never lie to you'. Rod cynically retorts 'you just have' to the last one. He is a realist: he knows that these promises are all too easy to make and they can be doubled against themselves and distorted by context and pressure and made to mean different things or to be reversed so he prefers the undifferentiated now. And he's initially proved right. Tinker threatens Carl with excruciating torture and Carl responds by begging Tinker to torture 'Rod not me'. And for each successive attempt to beg forgiveness, Carl is further punished with successive dismemberments. But eventually it is Rod's cynicism that is being tested and it's that cynicism that breaks. By the end, Rod promises everything he rejected before: 'I will always love you / I will never lie to you / I will never betray you / On my life'. It's the risk of that promise - the utterance that can be twisted and perverted and distorted and doubled by context and, yes, maybe proved false or hollow and naive - that is where this play has its heart. Love is not one or two but something in between; love is in the ghosts.
Because the play loves the doubling and the non-identity of things. Of course it does, because it's a play and it's a piece of theatre and theatre is wall-to-wall doubling and things not quite being themselves. Everything in theatre is a Banraku ghost mourner; it's something you can see and you can't see; it's there and it's not there. You go see Hamlet; it's Hamlet in front of you and it's not as well. When you see that figure walking across the stage, you're watching two people at the same time, an actor and a character, and they can never - never never never - be completely united. There's always a bit of a lag, a bit of a gap, a bit of air between the two. And that's how it should be and that what theatre does better than anything else. It makes things not themselves. Listen to the way the Bunraku ghost mourners are amplified here; their voices are here and there, real and not-real, placed and displaced. And finally, and I am really going to say this crazy thing because I think it is absolutely at the heart of what this play and this production is doing and if you can't fling out something bold and romantic and loving and risky after watching Cleansed directed by Katie Mitchell when can you do it, genuinely and sincerely, what this show tells us, through its doubles and substitutions and in the play of its ghosts and in the movement of a dress from Grace to Robin to Carl, is that theatre is love, yes, theatre is love.
The most loving (the characters say 'lovely') moments in this production are moments of doubling. The extraordinarily giddy and jubilant and exhilarating shuffling dance that Grace and Graham do to - oh god how brilliant a choice is this? - 'Ghost Rider' by Suicide, which just feels like the coolest thing I've seen happen on a stage in years. And then the various sex acts: Grace and Graham, Rod and Carl, Tinker and the Woman. All in their different ways - but I thought especially Rod and Carl - were moments of extraordinarily loved emotional contact amid all the brutality. It's only at the end when Grace and Graham have united into a single person that Grace is finally despairingly alone. The bleakest moments in the play are when people face things just being what they are: 'this is what it's like' says Graham in a moment of bleak insight before the smack hits his system; 'It can't be this' gasps Rod as he dies.
(Though even then, there's something mischievous and questioning in the syntax: 'this is what it's like' is both a statement of how things indivisibly are, but it's also another doubling 'this is what it's like' - as if 'this' [what is 'this'?] resembles but is not identical to 'it' [what is 'it'?]. 'It can't be this' - a moment of horror that it has all come down to this but in the words, in the actual words, it's the opposite; it can't be this. There's a hint of this too in Tinker's use of the tape recorder. He captures Rod and Carl's words. He has evidence. He sets the record straight. He tells it like it is. But to make his case, he also has to engage in recording: the words are doubled, iterated, duplicated, repeated.)
This production is both fiercely real and achingly theatrical. It's what it is and it's humming with metaphor. In fact it really is humming. The production has a completely beautiful constant running soundtrack of electronic screams and pulses, groans and grinds, like a kind of Radiophonic Workshop in hell. It puts you on edge throughout but it's also hauntingly gorgeous to hear. It's both sound and music; I don't know where Paul Clark's music ends and Melanie Wilson's sound begins and I don't want to know. If anyone comes up with a better lighting design that Jack Knowles this year I'll be amazed. Mostly practical (on-set) lighting, faintly touched in from the front, it washes the whole thing with a starkness and depth that keeps it constantly fascinating. Joseph Alford's choreography keeps the whole thing restlessly moving; it's 1hr40 but it rattles along, skttering from horror to horror.
But the evening is ultimately Katie Mitchell's and Sarah Kane's. It confirms for me what I've always thought, that Cleansed is Kane's masterpiece, her most daring and uncompromising play. But it also reminds us that Katie Mitchell is possibly the most important theatre artist of her generation and she is currently making the best work of her life.
Please go and see this production. You'll never forget it.