Entertainment & Arts

The return of Blasted

Danny Webb (Ian) and Lydia Wilson (Cate) in Blasted
Image caption Danny Webb (Ian) and Lydia Wilson (Cate) in Blasted

When Sarah Kane's Blasted opened at the Royal Court in 1995 it caused a furore.

"This disgusting feast of filth," was the headline above the Daily Mail's review. The London Evening Standard described the final scenes as "a systematic trawl through the deepest pits of human degradation".

Fifteen years on - and 11 years after Kane's suicide in 1999 - a major revival of Blasted at the Lyric Hammersmith is getting reviews of a very different kind.

Sean Holmes, the director of this new production - and Kane's friend - admits he was surprised by the critical hostility first time round.

"I think the mass hysteria in response to the play was a bit strange. It's interesting that a lot of critics subsequently have changed their mind, which is to their credit."

Writing in The Guardian at the weekend, Michael Billington said: "Although I have long since repented of my initially dismissive tone and this revival could hardly be better done, I still think the play well short of a masterpiece."

The reason for all the fuss around Blasted is not hard to fathom: the play opens in a luxurious hotel room in Leeds, where middle-aged foul-mouthed journalist Ian (Danny Webb) attempts to seduce - and then rapes - a vulnerable young woman, Cate (Lydia Wilson).

Image caption Sean Holmes (centre) directs rehearsals for Blasted with Lydia Wilson and Danny Webb

The arrival of a soldier (Aidan Kelly) signals an explosive set of events which lead to scenes of rape, torture and cannibalism.

In the free first preview for residents of Hammersmith and Fulham, 40 people walked out. ("But 450 didn't," notes Holmes.)

"One of things that annoys me is when people say it's Sarah's first play - so it's immature, it's puerile," says Holmes, who took over as artistic director at the Lyric in 2009.

"It's deeply considered and theatrically bold and intellectually rigorous, and she knew absolutely what she was doing. I really think it is one of the best plays I've ever worked on, and I've done Arthur Miller and Edward Bond and Chekhov and Shakespeare."

He adds: "Historically, it's often the important plays that are greeted in that way, whether it's Look Back In Anger or Saved."

'Tiny glimmer'

Holmes got to know Kane through doing a show in Edinburgh in 1991.

"She was a student at Bristol University and I'd just left York," he recalls. "It was a really intense experience because the show changed every day. We were rehearsing in a bedroom. It was an extraordinary time and we became firm friends as a result."

Image caption With the arrival of the soldier, events take an explosive turn

When Holmes saw a preview of Blasted at the Royal Court in 1995, he realised it was no ordinary piece of theatre.

"I'm one of the few people in the world who saw it before it became a news story. My abiding memory is how disorientating and challenging and provocative the play was. When I came out a friend asked what I thought and I said, 'I don't know, but I think we've just seen something really important.'"

Blasted is studied at A level and drama school, but is not so often seen in performance. It was revived at the Royal Court in 2001 after Kane's death.

Holmes thought that 2010 was the right time for another revival. "I thought there was a massive opportunity to present the play to people - like those under 30 - who've never had the chance to see it," he says.

"It's true to say that for me, and a lot of people, you come out a slightly different person to when you went in. There's not many things you can say that about."

Image caption Ray of hope? Danny Webb as Ian in the war zone of Blasted

Is it a challenge for the actors, going through such harrowing scenes night after night?

"They're not scared of the play," says Holmes. "For an actor it's a wonderful challenge."

He adds: "In a small and very powerful way there's transcendence and hope at the end of the play - and to finish with that tiny glimmer of hope probably helps as well."

Holmes recalls Kane as "a really funny person". It's true that Blasted is peppered with well-timed laughs that help defuse the horror.

"The play is dark and difficult but it's full of laughter. She's playing with the audience. The absurdity of human beings is central to the play," says Holmes.

"Sarah was fiercely intelligent, amazingly well-read, and knowledgeable in terms of theatre, and all that is synthesized within the play.

"What I've loved about doing it is being reminded about all those sides of Sarah. Obviously she's a friend of mine who isn't here any more, and you have moments where you are acutely aware of that loss.

"But I didn't choose to do the play as a weird catharsis for my friend, it's not about that doing that."

Blasted by Sarah Kane runs at the Lyric Hammersmith until 20 November.

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