LONDON — At the end of our torment, the girl two seats down leaned toward her friend and asked: “Any idea what it was about?”
There was no answer.
The previous hour and 40 minutes were dominated by mutilation, castration, electrocution, two counts of rape, psychological torture, the cutting out of a tongue, and a fatal injection into somebody’s eyeball. It was hard to discern a narrative through the carnage.
Every night the audience is plunged into a hellscape where love, sex, and torture are so tightly intertwined that death is the only hope. Every character is forced to the limit of human endurance.
“Death isn’t the worst thing they can do to you,” says one of the victims. “They can take away your life but not give you death instead.”
Some of our heroes beg to be put out of their misery. One guy chooses to hang himself with the stockings he has been forced to wear.
The playwright, Sarah Kane, took her own life a year after the play made its debut at the Royal Court in 1998. She was only 28 years old, but her six plays were credited with starting the “in-yer-face” movement, which reinvigorated the British theater.
This is the first time her work has been staged at the National Theatre, and mainstream audiences and the critics have struggled with the stomach-churning nihilism.
The Guardian offered one of the most forgiving reviews, although even Michael Billington had to concede: “I find its escalating horrors have a sense-numbing effect that outweighs its redemptive lyricism.”
You can say that again, Michael.
There is a visceral emotional study hidden inside the horror. The play is set in a derelict institution where a “doctor” with a band of masked assistants conducts brutal treatments on a cast of so-called degenerates that include drug addicts, incestuous twins, gay lovers, and a boy with learning difficulties.
They are tormented with a range of barbaric procedures that would make Jack Bauer’s toes curl. The most unfortunate victim, whose tongue is cut out in one of the early scenes, spends the rest of the play screaming in silence as his hands are fed into a cutting machine or his cock and balls are sliced off.
Amid the carnage, we are asked to consider whether love is able to endure human barbarity. Kane said she was inspired to write the play after reading Roland Barthes’s claim that “being in love was like being in Auschwitz.”
The world we are submerged into is certainly reminiscent of a concentration camp, and don’t be fooled; love may be the subject, but there is none of the life-affirming joy that permeates Roberto Benigni’s love-during-the-Holocaust Oscar winner Life Is Beautiful.
Love here is just another form of brutality, another way to torture us all. If this is a morality play, the questions seem to be: Is it OK to have sex with your twin brother if he’s already dead? Is it OK to betray your gay lover if you’re being sodomized with a 6-foot metal pole?
In both cases the answer is—what difference does it make? We’re all going to die in agony.
Certainly Kane doesn’t seem convinced by the value of love. Asked about her previous boyfriend, the main character replies: “He bought me a box of chocolates and then tried to strangle me.”
The least horrifying scene in the play features a hooded woman in her underwear forced to dance while the “doctor” jerks off furiously in front of her. That is an extraordinary, and horrifying, version of light-relief.
By the final act, the plot twists are so heartless, cruel, and disgusting that the audience is perhaps starting to find the endless misery ever so slightly funny. Eventually, the curtain comes down, accompanied by a primordial scream from one of the prisoners. Only then can we slump back into our seats, exhausted.
After reports of medics rushing into the theater mid-play, there were no interruptions during this performance. Richard Cragg, a retired Arts Council staffer, was one of the audience members who felt the powerful production was worth the gore. “There was a lot of human frailty in there,” he said. “But if you can’t talk about these things in public, that would be a crime against humanity.”
If you’re not a fan of crimes against humanity, it would be best to avoid this show altogether.
Cleansed is at the National Theatre in London until May 5.