The Hardest Thing I’ve Ever Had to Watch | Cleansed by Sarah Kane (National Theatre)

Katie Mitchell’s The Director’s Craft was the first book I ever read on theatre directing. I was seventeen, applying for my undergraduate degree, keen to appear well-read and interesting to the panels who would interview me. It’s the book that got me interested in directing, and it’s a book I have re-read for research projects, for inspiration, covered in highlighter with scribbles in the margin. Ever since, I have been desperate to see her in action. Last weekend, I finally had the chance to see her work.

[Graham Butler, Peter Hobday, and George Taylor | Photo by Stephen Cummiskey]

I knew nothing of Cleansed before this production. I knew nothing of Sarah Kane at all before this production, and I’m sure many of you will find that unforgivable. Keen not to ruin the experience for myself, I didn’t read a single review. Or rather, tried not to. But when half your Facebook friends are thespians and you follow about nine thousand theatre professionals on Twitter, it’s hard to avoid. Here is what I knew before I walked into NT’s Dorfman Theatre on Saturday afternoon:

– 40 people in total walked out during the performance in its first week
– 5 people required medical attention after fainting during a performance
– The performance contained “graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence”

It wouldn’t matter if I had read every single review on the show, or if I had gone in blind: nothing could have prepared me for this. When I say it is the hardest thing I’ve ever had to watch, I cannot begin to explain to you what I mean by this. I wanted to react, to scream, to shout my dissent, to defend the characters as they were tortured in ways that we cannot imagine happening in real life. But I couldn’t react. Much like the character whose tongue has been cut out, my tongue was held fast by audience etiquette. I wonder if this was intentional, if Sarah Kane wanted her audience to feel powerless, to feel forced into being complicit in the torture.

I couldn’t sit still. I squirmed, I gasped, my breathing ragged and my heart going a mile a minute. I clutched at my belly, clawed at my neck and, during a painfully slow scene in which a character is force-fed the entire contents of a two-tiered box of chocolates, bit into my hand to stop myself from screaming. It’s the most physical and visceral (is that even the right word?) reaction I’ve ever had to a play. I wanted to walk out but I couldn’t because I had to see the end. I wanted it to stop, not because it was bad – on the contrary, it was incredible – but because it felt so real.

That’s the blessing and the curse of theatre: you can’t press pause. You can try and emotionally prepare yourself for what you’re about to see, but you can never really prepare yourself for how it will make you feel. For the first time ever during a play, there was one particular moment that I physically could not watch. I saw what was about to happen and turned away, shut my eyes, and put my hands over my ears. Never before have I been sat in a theatre audience and found something genuinely unwatchable. That is a testament to Katie Mitchell’s powerful directing, and the sheer raw talent of the actors. Those poor actors who put themselves through such a draining ordeal TWICE A DAY for the entirety of the run. They have hardest job in the world.

Interestingly, I’ve always said that no matter how much theatre I see or make, the two things that will never cease to shock me are gunshots and nudity. Cleansed certainly cured that. It is hard to find nudity amusing or titillating when that nudity is accompanied by rape, castration, and torture. And it is hard to find gunshots scary when the real monster is wearing a three-piece suit.

Cleansed, by Sarah Kane
Directed by Katie Mitchell
National Theatre (Dorfman) until 5 May 2016


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