Although the National Theater’s website warned that Cleansed “[c]ontains graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence,” I did not expect that my evening in the Dorfman would be one of such an extreme nature that an audience member would be carried away, fainting, midshow. (“We get a few every night,” said the man in the cloakroom afterwards, also kindly suggesting I have a sit down to help me deal with what I’d just witnessed.)
I had really discounted the notice as a bit of protective hype, but the show that I got – full of rape, gore, torture, abuse, nudity, sex, and cruelty – operated at a level that seemed designed to batter the audience. Gloucester’s blinding, the maiming of Lavinia … these were moments of theatrical horror, but as arranged in this show the brutal moments were placed so snugly against one another that there was no room to breathe, and the violence in Sarah Kane’s text became nonsensical.
I decided the way to process it was to imagine that, in fact, I had signed up for a night at the Grand Guignol. The relationships that developed between the characters were truly works of fiction existing only to heighten the sensation of horror; the people we were watching, seemingly, suffer, were merely actors playing a role which they would repeat nearly exactly in the next performance. No one was being hurt physically or emotionally, no matter what the bursts of stressed out sweat coming off the man sitting next to me might say. It was fake shots, fake rape, fake suicide and fake murder, all bundled up to deliver the most heightened experience possible. And, although it looked like we were going to have vomiting and emptied bladders/bowels, those lines were not crossed. (Although I think on some nights the vomiting might happen.) I had to <I>actively</I> distance myself from what was happening on stage to get through the show.
Er, so, what about the story? Cleansed seems to me a mélange of short pieces tied together poorly with its asylum setting. We have a woman seeking her lost brother; a gay couple the authorities are attempting to get to betray each other a la 1984; and a peep show stripper being manipulated by a stranger. I couldn’t feel that there was really an overarching narrative to this, although the desire for human connection ran through all of the scenes like a knife slash across a belly: bleeding, dripping, wrenching in its reality. But these threads did not ultimately make a plot, and while each was sharply (horrifically) acted, I couldn’t help but feel all I had was tacked together sketches – or, perhaps, surgical staples across the wound of Kane’s script.
In the end, Cleansed will find its audience; fans of Katie Mitchell, fans of Sarah Kane (myself) … but, I think not in a way Kane would have wanted, fans of gore who come for a night of gut turning theatrical trickery. It’s not what I want to see on stage, but there’s got to be somebody out there who enjoys it; I just wonder if this really, really in any way is how this script was meant to come across.
(This review is for a preview performance that took lace on Friday, February 19th, 2016. It continues through May 5th. It took me three days to recover from how deeply disturbed this show left me. You have been warned.)