When Sarah Kane’s play Blasted was premièred at the tiny upstairs studio in the Royal Court Theatre in London in January 1995, it created such a stir that her name was splashed across the tabloid newspapers.
When Sarah Kane’s play Blasted was premièred at the tiny upstairs studio in the Royal Court Theatre in London in January 1995, it created such a stir that her name was splashed across the tabloid newspapers. How could a 23-year-old woman have come up with such an ugly, violent drama in which limbs are lopped off, eyes gouged out and so-called love is turned into a horrifying rape scene? One critic called it ‘a disgusting feast of filth’; another said that the experience of watching it was like ‘having your whole head held in a bucket of offal’. Kane was shaken but unrepentant, and went on to write another four equally controversial plays before killing herself on 20 February 1999 while in hospital after taking an overdose of sleeping tablets two days earlier.
Her story is shocking, but also intriguing. From horrified antagonism, the critics turned to reverent awe, hailing Kane as a poetic genius and saviour of British theatre. In less than five years her plays were translated and performed all over Europe and when she died the theatres in Germany dimmed their lights as a mark of respect.
I never saw any of her works being performed, not really fancying an evening of depressingly predictable blood and guts (a typical stage direction would be, ‘The rat begins to eat Carl’s hand’). But I listened to Thursday morning’s profile on Radio Four, Blasted: The Life and Death of Sarah Kane, hoping that it might explain what inspired her to write with such violence, and why she is now said to have been the true heir of Samuel Beckett and Harold Pinter.
We heard from her brother, Simon, and the theatrical agent who nurtured her talent, as well as the playwright Mark Ravenhill and the theatre critic of the Guardian, Michael Billington, who said that ‘all major plays are misunderstood on their first outing’, having admitted that he wrote a facetiously glib review of Blasted in an attempt to conceal his sense of shock and horror at what he had just seen. He’s now been converted.
At half an hour the programme was far too short to explore fully the nature of Kane’s troubled talent. We needed to hear more from her, and especially from her plays so that we could decide for ourselves how horrific they are. Those snippets we were given were tantalising, showing that Kane could, with sharp accuracy, recreate the mind’s tormenting mountains; its frightful cliffs of fall. Her last play, 4:48 Psychosis, for instance, has no definable plot or characters. It’s named after the time in the early hours of the morning which became Kane’s regular appointment with psychosis, and attempts to recreate the experience. From the tiny excerpt we did hear, the dialogue sounded spot-on for radio where the formal aspects of theatre are often a hindrance.
Pinter, whose own work for the stage and for radio has been celebrated on Radio Three this week, regarded Kane as a writer who ‘faced up to something actual and true and ugly and painful’. At her memorial service she was described as ‘a poet’ with ‘a very startling and tender voice’ — an odd description given the content of most of her plays. That voice was certainly not heard in this programme, which, predictably, focused too much on the controversy and not enough on Kane herself. A season of Sarah Kane plays on radio would surely be the real test of her enduring legacy, and truly pit her against Pinter, who himself wrote so enigmatically well for radio.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated February 21, 2009