Cross-dressing, gunshots, strippers in booths, electrocution, masturbation, rape, drugs in eyeballs, violent assault, forced feeding, straight sex, gay sex, incest with a dead brother, ripping out of tongues, sex reassignment surgery, electro-shock therapy, murder, suicide, war, Blondie and sunflowers. That, people, is Cleansed.
This is a tough play. Graphic and unflinching.
We are in a prison, of a kind. A man, a ‘doctor,’ Tinker (Tom Mothersdale) rules through cruelty and fear. His prisoners walk on, and by the time he has finished with them, they have to be wheeled off. Those that leave alive, return again and again, leaving weaker each time. The ever decreasing circles closing in.
There are moments where the pain is so bad, you have to look away. There are moments that are so electric that you cannot look away.
Inevitably there were walkouts. And inevitably there was huge applause from many who stayed to the end. One man even collapsed 30 minutes in. Lights had to go up in the auditorium and ushers had to come in to escort him out.
It’s that kind of theatre.
If there was an explicit plot connecting all the above I missed it. It’s deliberately obscure. As is time and place. Where are we? No idea. Who are these people? We never know.
So what is this play about? Why all this ecstasy and pain?
Is this real or imaginary? Are we in a dream, or even a nightmare? Is this depression or mental illness? Psychosis? The dark corners of the human soul? An exploration of freedom and desire? Societal censorship – or even self-censorship? Are we in hell? Or is this forcing us to address all the complications of reality – of human desire and human fears?
Maybe it’s none of the above. Maybe it’s all of the above.
I have no idea.
But whatever it is that we are watching, the visuals are as powerful as the actions.
Masked men haunt the stage. If they’re not electrocuting prisoners, they’re eerily carrying bouquets of lilies across the stage. Director Katie Mitchell’s vision is daring and defiant. So much time and so much space is given to each torture, to let it run as long and as painfully as necessary. Time for the knife to dig deep into the side. Time for the stomach to turn and turn and turn.
This is the first production of a Sarah Kane play ever at the National Theatre, and the first major London revival of Cleansed since its premiere in 1998. But is it any good? I don’t know.
I sat through it all, I watched it all, and I still don’t know. There’s minimal structure. It’s hard to get a grip on what’s going on. The central character – Grace (Michelle Terry) – is slight and obscure. She’s hard to get to know, impossible to sympathise with. Your mind is constantly chasing itself – where am I? Who are these people? Whose side am I on?
And what exactly is being ‘cleansed’ here?
So, where does this leave this review?
With an anecdote.
My English Literature GCSE classes. We were studying poetry and one of my classmates asked the teacher how is it anyone can mark and grade poetry (we were a precocious lot). Citing the example of Jabberwocky, my friend asked, “But how can you mark what you don’t understand? How can you judge what is deliberately obscure? What if I handed in a poem like that as homework, what mark would you give?”
Our teacher replied, “I would hand it back ungraded. You can’t judge or mark something like that. It’s of its own.”
And I think of that now.
Cleansed is my Jabberwocky. It’s too extraordinary, too exceptional and so far outside of any kind of orthodoxy or familiar structure that I find it impossible to judge. Or even understand.
Can I recommend it? I’m unsure. But you’ll either walk out or give it a standard ovation. Or leave as haunted and unsure as me.
National Theatre, London to May 5, 2016
Note: I saw a preview of this production. Press Night is Tuesday February 23, 2016.