Blasted brings to light unthinkable and sometimes unbearable darkness. It forces us to experience the very pain and sadness that some people go to the theatre to escape. But Blasted is not just a black hole. It is a play that slides between extremes – love and hate, laughter and tears, life and death – with significant and frightening ease. Sean Holmes’ elegant but resounding production straddles the divide brilliantly, fluttering restlessly between comedy and tragedy, hope and despair.
Everything begins much more lightly and clearly than one might imagine of Sarah Kane’s once reviled and under appreciated play. Holmes keeps things tangible and realistic in the opening scenes and is careful not to force the later, enveloping darkness into the earlier moments. This does not initially feel like a play that could accommodate a scene in which a dead baby is served up as grub. The show is infinitely more powerful for this restraint: the opening scenes have an edge to them that is impossible to pin down and the desperate escalation of the closing scenes is all the more horrifying, given their fairly moderate and realistic genesis.
Paul Wills’ set feeds in beautifully to the cool but frightening calm that settles over the early scenes. The entire width of the Lyric stage is occupied by a pristine, obtrusively white hotel room, with windows (blinds drawn) that span across the back wall. These windows taken on an extraordinary, suggestive power in this production. The light that shines through them (Lighting designer Paule Constable is so good at creating light with feeling) never feels comforting, only accusatory, and though its clean gleam could feel celestial it feels threatening instead. The fact no shadows creep through these windows, lends the eerie impression of a blank landscape beyond the stage. This means that, despite the ostensible realism of this slightly upmarket Holiday Inn style set, one never forgets the threat that lurks beyond.
This external and unrealised threat is mirrored in Kane’s stark and stretched dialogue. Every phrase seems to be missing a beat and the audience starts to strain for the meaning in between the words. The initially casual, always spiky, chat between journalist Ian (Danny Webb) and young Cate (Lydia Wilson) feels like it has been strapped to a ticking bomb. One sits, compelled, waiting for the explosion one knows must come.
Danny Webb and Lydia Wilson play each scene in its own right, never anticipating the horrors that might be one thunderous scene change away. Wilson is a refreshingly ballsy Cate and, for large chunks of time, she is the one in control; no more so than when Ian over-hastily undresses, leaving his drooping body, cold and exposed. Sex is not seen as a threat at this early stage, although the laughter that Ian’s striptease prompts from Cate is icy and screeches cruelly around the theatre.
It is only when the Soldier enters that the play’s lurking danger finally crawls onstage. Aidan Kelly is suitably threatening and huge – as big as the door he lurches through – yet there is something vaudevillian about his eager munching on Ian’s leftover breakfast. He begins to resemble an ape, scampering around for scraps. This is Kane’s genius: to present one acidic fear and then quickly accept it and so diminish it, creating the threat of something scarier still to come.
Constable’s lightning brilliantly accentuates this idea: once the room has exploded, leaving the stage barren except for a few crucifix-like foundations suspended in the background, the shadows come into play. As the soldier tells his boiling, chilling stories about the impossibly vicious rape and murder he has witnessed and taken part in, a huge black shadow stalks behind him. These horrors, Kane tells us along with Constable’s corroboration, are only just the beginning.
As the play careers towards its piercing conclusion, the terror only magnifies. Some critics have complained that Kane’s violence is not dramatically earned, but I disagree - it is laced into the entire fabric of this play. The horrors of the final act are there from the start, even in the nothingness that streams through the windows, but it is Kane who decides when to let the darkness in or out.
In a final dazzling montage, before a surprisingly redemptive and comforting reunion between Ian and Cate, we watch Ian’s humanity slide right out of him. A thunderbolt boom and an isolating spotlight, which streams down from an impossible height, captures Ian’s descent. Boom! Ian screams out the word cunt, over and over again, whilst furiously masturbating. Boom! Ian tries to strangle himself. Boom! Ian, blinded and blood streaming from his eyes, pulls out the buried baby and begins to chomp on its arm. As the explosions jolt through us, each crueller than the last, one begins to dread the light and long for the darkness to descend.