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Zerbombt (Blasted)
Barbican, London

Andrew Haydon
posted 9 November 2006

Blasted first opened in a slow news week on 12 January 1995 - a skewed, metaphorical play in which 45-year-old tabloid journalist, Ian, meets with his 21-year-old ex-girlfriend, Cate, in a hotel room. The pair argue and indulge in several sex acts before he rapes her while she is unconscious. Cate disappears into the bathroom. A soldier from the Bosnian war breaks into the room - indeed the hotel room appears to be transported to the war zone. The room is then destroyed by a bomb.

The soldier proceeds to rape Ian, suck out his eyeballs, and then shoot himself. Cate returns with an orphaned baby. The baby dies. Ian eats the baby. Ian dies. In the absence of a better story, news of the play was catapulted to the front page of the Daily Mail, which listed the atrocities depicted by the play under the headline 'This disgusting feast of filth' amidst a general critical slamming across the papers.

The play was the first work by Sarah Kane, a 23-year-old who suffered from depression. Four years and four plays later, Kane had killed herself, and Blasted's initial critical reception had been wholly reversed. By 2001 Kane was deemed a sufficiently important dramatist to be given a full retrospective season at the Royal Court with all five of her plays revived. She is now considered one of Britain's most important dramatists of the past twenty years. It is a measure of her success that productions of her work, by very highly-regarded directors, can now be imported from the continent, where, if anything, she is held in even greater esteem than she is here.

Thomas Ostermeier's production of Blasted (originally produced at the Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz, Berlin) is, in many ways, about as far from how one imagines the play as it is possible to get without actually cutting anything. While on the page, and in its original production, Blasted has an almost punk aesthetic of squalor and swearing, shouting and violence; here it is rendered as calm, conversational, deliberate and meditative. It is like an Aphex Twin remix of a Sex Pistols song. You can see and hear how the contents of the original would have the power to shock, but in this case are presented with enough distance for notions of shock to be theoretical rather than visceral. Zerbombt is almost the diametric opposite of 'In-yer-face' - it is right out of yer face, and a long way away on a beautifully designed set, in a nice, big, well-appointed auditorium.

The characters in this production are also transformed. In the script, Ian reads like a cartoon of a violent, racist, tabloid hack. Here he presented like a trim, urbane, smartly dressed, slightly depressed, German designer in a well-tailored beige suit, crisp white shirt and tie. It's hard to tell if these differences stem from the language/translation gap. What might have come across slightly oddly if it were done in a British production loses all the class baggage because he's speaking in another language. It works, but it works against the text. The play reads in a certain way (and indeed says that what Ian is wearing isn't a nice suit), which idiomatically positions Ian in the British class system. Similarly, because the script in English is so precisely written, the way it will be delivered is virtually prescribed. This production throws all that out the window - and makes a whole new set of decisions, licensed as much by the different language as by directorial imagination. Cate also seems to have benefited from this improved European standard of living and seems far more self assured than the stuttering, emotional wreck of British productions.

The soldier is the biggest surprise, though. In James Macdonald's original, Dermot Kerrigan was utterly terrifying as a young, lean, wild-eyed, violent soldier. In Ostermeier's version the soldier is around fifty, fat, and, at times, almost avuncular. The scenes between him and Ian are transformed from the unbearably tense threat of atrocity to something genuinely conversational. Despite the obvious power imbalance, the two men chat away almost as equals. This is another striking aspect of the entire production - how quietly everyone on stage speaks. If there hadn't been surtitling, much of the dialogue would have been lost. It is naturalism pushed to its absolute limit - where actors speak at the correct volume for the size of the room their characters are standing in, rather than taking into account the rather larger auditorium where they actually are. The effect at times is not dissimilar to listening to a German radio station playing very faintly whilst reading a copy of Blasted.

It is important to note at this juncture that this isn't to say that the production 'doesn't work' or has 'got it wrong'. It is genuinely interesting to see a play with such baggage presented wholly afresh. While the performance style sacrifices tension, it gains different qualities. The visual aesthetic of the production follows this sobriety, with a gorgeously designed hotel room set - the best in understated German minimalist luxury - marooned on a stage of its own in the middle of the Barbican theatre's own vast stage. Its destruction half-way through fully transforms it into an almost non-naturalistic diorama - the walls are replaced by a vast bank of strip-lights against the back of the stage, which strobe, flicker and blink between scenes, while the set of the room is totally covered in rubble and white dust looking more like a faintly surreal lunar landscape than a bomb site. Similarly, the sex and violence are tastefully rendered - at no stage does it ever threaten to get too much. Indeed the scene in which the soldier rapes Ian is surprisingly tender. It all feels very safe; protectively wrapped in good taste and art. Aside from this unexpected quality of meditation and calm that Ostermeier brings to the piece, there is little directorial invention here - at one stage 'The Great Pretender' is played during a tableau, and elsewhere Cate and Ian switch on the hotel room television to hear bursts of contemporary news reports - but little else.

One effect of this near-forensic treatment is to lay the plot and characters rather bare. This production, clocking in at two hours, adds a good half an hour to the running time of the original. That is a lot of extra time to think. The fact that the shock and awe element has been removed means that the audience is much freer to concentrate on what is actually being said, so that the quality of metaphor in the piece becomes far more explicit, if slightly at the expense of the development of the relationships between the characters. If this had been the original production, it is tempting to think that precious little fuss would have been made. The initial critical reaction came about because the extremity of the violence obscured the points it was trying to make. With the 'horror' greatly toned down (or perhaps the audience was simply better prepared - although press night did manage to muster four walk-outs), the play's arguments became far more apparent. To an extent, this does not work wholly in its favour. The obvious parallels between Ian's treatment of Cate and the soldier's later treatment of Ian start to look schematic when given too much space. Similarly, an argument between Ian and the soldier about press responsibility seems a little obvious when presented outside an atmosphere of palpable terror.

Whether Kane's bleak worldview - a central point, according to Kane, is that 'the seeds of full-scale war can always be found in peacetime civilisation' - has gained a greater currency in a post-9/11 world is a moot point. What has changed is the way that the horror of war, which once felt impossibly remote, has now acquired a new relevance since it began to be felt within our borders, and in a manner frighteningly similar to that which the play suggests.

Till 11 November 2006


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