By Simon Fearn
In any survey of the bleakest plays ever written, Blasted would almost certainly be a contender. Sarah Kane’s brutal play attracted a fair bit of controversy following its 1995 debut, before ultimately being hailed as an important and challenging work. Casting squeamishness aside, I join the cast and crew of Bailey Theatre Company’s upcoming production of the play as they tackle the difficult text.
Nikhil Vyas, the man behind much of the darker side of student theatre over the past year, is buzzing with enthusiasm. “I’ve wanted to do it since sixth form,” he tells me. “It was the first play I’d read where I’d genuinely thought about how would I go about staging this.” Anyone familiar with the play will know how hard it is to perform, both in terms of characterisation and technical issues, but we can be assured that it’s in safe hands. Polly Norkett (Cate) and Greg Plummer (The Soldier) both cite a desire to work with Vyas as a major draw in joining the production.
This doesn’t mean the team have had an easy ride. “It’s probably one of the hardest plays I’ve ever done,” admits Henry Fell (Ian), with Norkett adding that “it doesn’t get any easier, it probably gets progressively harder through rehearsals”. Fell and Plummer’s characters say and do terrible things, and Fell admits that “for the first couple of rehearsals, I didn’t realise how horrific some of the things I was saying were.”
With the play’s plot and dialogue dealing with war crimes and sexual abuse in a stridently unabashed fashion, is it hard to get beyond the initial shock value? Co-producer Rohan Perumatantri is quick to put me right. “There’s nothing that we’re doing that is trying to shock an audience,” he assures me. “A lot of it is trying to give the impression of what’s happening rather than overtly showing it.” To this end, I notice during the rehearsal that one of Kane’s more lurid stage directions has been cut, but that doesn’t mean that audiences will be presented with a sanitised experience. Fell promises that this production “will push the boundaries of what you’d like to watch.”
Seeing Fell and Norkett interact during the rehearsal, it is clear that the focus rests on the subtleties of their relationship rather than the more sensational aspects of the text. The pair shift from loathing each other to a complex and bruised affection throughout the scene. “On the surface of it,” explains Vyas, “Ian is a horrible character, Cate is a weak character, and the soldier is a psychopath. But that’s not compelling. The audience focuses on Ian throughout, and there’s no reason for them to do that unless they find some redeeming human element to him.”
Norkett goes on to explain how, as actors, it’s hard to humanise these characters against the inhumanity of their surroundings. “It would be so easy to fall back into the comfort zone of two dimensional, stereotyped characters,” she tells me. “We’ve had to make our characters far more human than it would be easy to do.” The play’s outbursts of horrific violence only truly sink in when we can identify with even the culprits as complex, horribly flawed human beings. “It’s about trying to find any line you can pick up on and think ‘I can relate to that’,” says Fell of his take on racist and rapist Ian. “Initially, you don’t want to relate to him in any way.”
Plummer treads a similar line between monster and victim of his surroundings. “He’s a character who’s utterly lost control of his life,” described Vyas. “He’s put into this system of male brutality and rape, which has broken him down utterly”. Plummer tells me the central challenge was to find reasons behind The Soldier’s brutal acts towards Ian. “It’s about jealousy and missing his old life with his girlfriend,” he concludes. “He sees that Ian has something that he’ll never be able to achieve because of all the things that he’s done.”
Mercifully, there is one character who is not a rapist or a murderer. “Cate has had a hard life, but underneath she is a caring person,” reveals Norkett, with Vyas adding that “she’s a slight beacon of hope amidst all the horror happening around her.” Although Plummer and Fell have worked to make Ian and The Solider more than monsters, it is Cate who brings the most humanity to the play. But this poses Norkett with no less of a challenge than her co-stars. “Cate’s a difficult character to make sense of,” Vyas admits. “She can seem quite cryptic at times.”
Vyas and his team have not made things easy for themselves with their choice of play, but the main thing I took from our meeting was that no one should feel put off by the play’s moments of overwhelming brutality. To focus too much on the multiple shocks this performance will deliver to its audience is to miss the point. “There’ll be people for whom it won’t be their kind of play,” concedes Vyas. “But if they can see the value in it, and appreciate what we’ve done with it, then that’s all we can really ask for. If it makes them think beneath the surface of the play, and appreciate what Sarah Kane was driving at, then that’s the most important thing for me.”
Our discussion ends with Norkett imploring audiences to come to Blasted with an open mind. It’s true that the play will be in no way easy to watch, but from what I’ve seen today, it will be an exciting theatrical event.
‘Blasted’ will be performed in The Assembly Rooms Theatre from Thu 29 till Sat 31 Oct, 19:30. Book tickets here.
Photographs: Isabelle Culkin