Getting Blasted: Sarah Benson with Caridad Svich
It’s been thirteen years since Sarah Kane’s Blasted premiered at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in a 1995 production directed by James Macdonald. Since that time and the explosion of the ‘in-yer-face’ (as defined by critic Aleks Sierz) theater movement , British writing has taken a turn in the fallout of the Blair years toward work that is more contained and less classically-based or driven. Stateside, an equivalent of ‘in-yer-face’ theater never quite found its way, although Adam Rapp’s plays of male slacker neurosis, angst and paranoia and Tracy Letts’ Killer Joe and Bug have a passing kinship to the work of UK writing in the 1990s. Curiously enough, young UK dramatist Robert Farquhar’s Bad Jazz—which is in some respects, a satirical take on the imprint of the explosive writing of the 90s—received its US premiere last season in NYC courtesy of the Play Company, before many of the plays from that era have been seen in the city. While Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis has been seen twice at BAM—in the Royal Court tour and in the French-language Isabelle Huppert production in consecutive seasons—Cleansed, and Phaedra’s Love have had lower-profile stagings, and even Crave’s premiere in NYC shortly after Kane’s death, in a production starring Deborah Harry, ran for a very limited engagement in what many critics felt was a less than exhilarating presentation despite Harry’s formidable presence. So, all to say, that Blasted arrives in NYC (finally) with different wars in its background (Iraq, Georgia, Darfur, Afghanistan etc. rather than the Balkans), the writer’s tragic death as part of its aura, and at a time in US theater that’s characterized, however formalist and experimental its new writing may be or seem, by a distinctly interior, light absurdist, whimsicality of tone that is a far cry from the tart, bracing dark humor and extremity of violence for which Blasted is known.
Originally set to receive its NYC premiere at the end of Soho Rep’s 2007-2008 season and rescheduled for management reasons , Kane’s forceful vision now opens against the backdrop of a tough US Presidential race, a difficult economic crisis, and tectonic shifts in civil wars around the globe. I sat down with Sarah Benson in September over tea in Soho as Blasted was about to go into tech to talk about the production and her goals for the work. The following is an edited transcript of our conversation.
Caridad Svich: I wanted to ask you first how you feel the 13-year span after Blasted’s premiere in the UK affects your reading of it now within the current geopolitical climate for a stateside audience?
Sarah Benson: The last day we were in the rehearsal space with actors Marin Ireland (who plays Cate), Louis Cancelmi (who plays the Soldier) and Reed Birney (who plays Ian), we were talking precisely about context and the fact that we were really glad we were doing it now as opposed to April 2008 when we were originally going to produce it because the play doesn’t get any less relevant. Even after all this time. And it is one of the things that marks it as a great piece for the theater. It continues to speak to the times. In terms of the current political climate, as a British native who cannot vote here in the US, making art is one way for me to participate in the political process. I feel full of rage right now about what’s happening and what’s going on and I’m happy we’re doing the play now. I don’t think it’s coincidental that this production’s come together at this time. These are really violent times.
Svich: What kinds of research did you do before going into production?
Benson: The play was written in response to the Balkan conflict and much of the imagery in the play relates directly to it. But it was important for me to not locate the play in a historical time with this production but rather locate it in the very specific nature of civil war. There are at least ten civil wars going on right now in the world. And the notion of civil conflict in and of itself is unique because it is not about wars between nations but rather wars within. So, you can think of Cain and Abel, Romulus and Remus and so forth. The fact that the destruction lies within is true of all the characters in the play. I also spoke to director James Macdonald in London about Sarah’s work—he directed Blasted twice and also directed Cleansed and 4:48 Psychosis. Speaking with him was really helpful just to understand context and Sarah’s work.
Svich: Kane’s short body of work—extreme and hallucinatory—is classical in its nature. It has a strong link to the severity of Aeschylus and Seneca rather than, say, the more freewheeling tonalities evident in Euripides. How do you as a director reconcile the severity of Kane’s vision?
Benson: Blasted is steeped in Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, Jacobean revenge tragedy and the modernist response to classicism of T.S. Eliot. It’s an early play of Kane’s and, as such, it’s much more transparent about its classical foundations than later plays of hers. In my work with the actors in this production, it’s been crucial to understand the piece’s classical nature. It’s not psychological realism, but operates on an epic level—on a meta stage, as it were. Structurally, the play is called Blasted, not Blasting and that’s important, because you’re witnessing events after huge shifts in experience. The play lives in the after-effect. Thus the play is in direct opposition to Quentin Tarantino type of violence. It’s not a play about rape and cannibalism. It’s a play that speaks against desensitization. Kane wants her audience to be re-acclimated to the effect of violence. Audiences expecting Saw or Hostel will be sorely disappointed. It’s not about the gore.
Svich:When I first think about the play I think about its tough humor, its Pinter before Artaud-enters-the-room cruelty. What do you make of the play’s tone, especially in the first half? And in what ways do you think it engages the viewer?
Benson: It does have a very British kind of humor but it’s not limited by its Britishness. It reminds me of Beckett. Kane portrays extreme situations and characters in great need. Her characters keep getting things slung at them and they have to cope somehow and the humor comes from watching the characters cope.
Svich: I’m interested in the play’s British-ness as much as in its cross-cultural stance. In many ways, the play could be seen as an indictment of British parochial politics and reportage vis a vis the carnage outside its borders. The fact that the hotel room is in Leeds, for example. A joke as well as a reality. And again, this goes directly to how the humor in the play functions.
Benson: There’s also huge class difference between the characters. Cate is lower class. Ian is a very specific English type: white, entitled, racist bigot. The distinctions between them are crucial. His Englishness is definitely part of who he is as a character and how he’s painted by Kane.
Svich: ln the Greek, the word is “aporia,” and its etymology is “without passage”—basically signifying the point at which (in the terminology of deconstruction) a final impasse is reached and the text undermines or dismantles its own rhetorical structure. In Blasted, aporia is explicitly operative when the interior world of the transient hotel room is broken/dismantled by the savagery of war and its claims. In what ways do you think theater can encounter moments of impasse? Emotionally, physically, spiritually, and yet remain hopeful?
Benson: Compared to Kane’s later plays, Blasted and Phaedra’s Love have more hope in them. The play acknowledges that there’s something strong that binds us all together as people. It addresses real and meaningful things about the nature of who we are as humans and how we live our lives. But of course it’s also just a play. The events that happen in the play are too big to happen in a play. The play breaks apart, and thus it addresses something beyond itself and in this I see hope. A hope in the world inside the characters and outside the theater.
Svich: The play has very specific visual/technical demands and on top of that you’re producing it in a tiny space! The piece originally was staged at the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs, which is small, and then and now at Soho Rep, it’s a challenge. How have you thought about the spatial requirements of the play?
Benson: In this play, the design is crucial because of the split nature of Kane’s visual world. I’m always interested in the architecture of design rather than its decorative aspect and this seemed to me to be true of Blasted. The first half of the play requires a realistic set: this high-end, but not really, anonymous hotel room that is designed to make you look good but has a fakeness, a plasticity, about it. In the second half the space changes drastically. The reality of the play changes in a concrete and metaphorical sense. My design team and I wanted something sudden, but also something that spoke to the Soho Rep space and its limitations. I can’t tell you more than that because of course part of how the plays works is through an element of visual surprise.
Rail: I still have the second edition of Blasted with me. The two-play volume (including Phaedra’s Love) has traveled more miles and countries than could be imagined as I’ve worked here in the US and abroad. It’s one volume, however weathered, that nearly always makes it into my knapsack when I travel for a long work stint—that and Fornes’ Mud. For me, the play serves as a touchstone for staying true to a vision—the risk and dare writers are called to despite fashion or trend. As a director and artistic director moreover how do you keep yourself focused on vision and your trajectory?
Benson: Well, next season I’m directing a Jason Grote play at Soho Rep. I’m always looking for material that is infuriating and difficult on some level. Finding stuff I don’t know how to do. Usually in form and in content. That’s the best challenge for me. With Blasted – it’s a play I’ve always had a visceral reaction to, and thus, to take it on…has been quite a test. After I spoke to Simon Kane (Sarah Kane’s brother and co-executor of her literary estate) and we agreed to make this production happen, I remember I was standing outside Waterloo Station in London and I thought “well I guess I’m going to do this.” I was daunted but excited to take it on. I like work that catches me off guard, that puts me in a place where I’m surprised, and ignorant. There are lots of amazing plays out there but Blasted even now is a play from which I’m still learning. That kind of discovery is what I always want to have as a director.
Sarah Kane's Blasted runs Oct. 2 to Oct. 26 at Soho Rep, 46 Walker St. For tickets and information, please visit www.sohorep.org.
Caridad Svich is a playwright-lyricist-translator-editor and founder of theater alliance NoPassport. Her play Instructions for Breathing premieres this spring at Passage Theater in NJ under Daniella Topol's direction.