There’s a moment in Greg Wohead’s show The Ted Bundy Project when the whole audience holds its breath. We’re watching a video – a video that Wohead has already described at (horrifying) length – and we’re wondering if Wohead – lovely, affable, smiling Wohead – is really about to show us this. He wouldn’t, would he? I stare at the screen, feeling slightly sick, yet unable to wrench my gaze away. I can’t stop watching.
“It’s hard to watch,” writes Natasha Tripney of Katie Mitchell’s production of Cleansed. “Yet here we are, watching.” There’s a similar sense of suspended breath in the Dorfman auditorium. I suspect that many of us know, or at least half know, what to expect from Sarah Kane’s play, first staged at the Royal Court in 1998. We have chosen to be here. And we choose to remain in our seats, looking on as horrible things happen to the bodies on stage. What makes us watch? And how, as we watch, do we make sense of what we see?
The first question, perhaps, is what are we seeing? Both Kane’s play and Mitchell’s production make that a difficult question to answer. In both, very specific scenes of torture and tenderness sit within a strange, abstract world. Tom Mothersdale’s Tinker, sadistic and self-loathing, rules over an institution of some kind, where he torments and experiments on a series of subjects: siblings Graham (Graham Butler) and Grace (Michelle Terry), lovers Carl (Peter Hobday) and Rod (George Taylor), and an illiterate boy named Robin (Matthew Tennyson, bringing extraordinary gentleness to this cruel world). What we as an audience experience is more a series of brutal and beautiful impressions than a linear, coherent narrative.
Several reviews of Cleansed (both negative and positive) have listed the violence: litanies of horrors laid out for the reader like a catalogue of cruelty. Quentin Letts even offers the exact timings of each instance of torture. But violence is more than just the blows of a fight or the blast of a gun. It’s more than the blood and gore which have dominated press coverage of this revival (along with the depressingly predictable headlines reporting audience members fainting and walking out – presumably not at the same time) – and which, in any case, I was braced for as I tentatively took my seat.
Yes, it’s often difficult to watch. Yes, certain scenes of torture and mutilation – described in (sometimes problematic) detail elsewhere, so I won’t repeat the fetishisation of that represented violence again here – make me curl my hands into fists or send them flying to my mouth. But there’s also violence in the constant ringing of bells and the smooth wheeling in of gurneys. It’s the casual, precise, institutionalised horror of it all that strikes me as most violent. It’s the plastic sheets and pristine black suits.
Perhaps the cruelest moment of the production is when, having force-fed Robin a box of chocolates, Tinker gleefully peels away a sheet of cardboard to reveal another sickly layer beneath. He picks up each individual chocolate with a long pair of tongs, careful not to get his hands dirty. Rooted to my seat – eyes held open, muscles clenched – I shiver.
I could write about Cleansed purely in images. Grace trapped in dreamlike incomprehension on the stairs, her red dress a vivid splash of colour against her grubby, washed-out surroundings. Rod and Carl frozen in a kiss as Grace’s arm slowly snakes between them. A slow-motion mockery of a funeral, as faceless figures glide across the stage clutching lilies and umbrellas. The daffodils that sprout, suddenly, through the floor. A series of embraces: tender, fierce, bodies briefly moving as one. Carl’s silent scream as he’s wheeled backwards on a gurney. Grace dancing to Suicide’s “Ghost Rider”, at first a mirror image of Graham, later alone and compulsively, limbs animated with a mixture of horror and joy.
My use of the word “dreamlike” feels apt, as Mitchell’s production is more like a dream than anything else. It’s a nightmare, often, with its shadowy figures and soundless howls. But it also has the vivid strangeness of all dreams, that sense of a world slightly off-kilter. Mitchell (supported by Joseph Alford’s brilliantly controlled movement direction) has slowed everything down to a pace that feels almost outside of time, punctuated with moments of frenetic activity. Nothing quite operates as we expect it to here. Bodies slow and quicken. Plants burst through floor tiles. The seamless combination of Paul Clark’s music and Melanie Wilson’s sound design, meanwhile, generates a constant, queasy anxiety.
Dan Rebellato is one of the few writers to have commented on the theatricality of Cleansed as much as on its naturalism. Many have argued that this version of Cleansed is too realistic, its rendering of violence too convincing. But it’s the hyper-naturalism of Mitchell’s approach to certain moments that creates the production’s uncanniness, its nightmarish blend of (literally) razor-sharp precision and blurry abstraction. As Rebellato puts it, “This production is both fiercely real and achingly theatrical. It’s what it is and it’s humming with metaphor.” It’s haunted by an uneasy doubleness, common to both theatre and dreams. Everything is two things at once. Dreaming and waking. Real and not real. What are we watching?
Mitchell’s production foregrounds the act of watching, of bearing witness. Throughout, we watch Grace watching; she is a constant presence, hovering on the edges of every scene. While the performances are uniformly excellent, it’s Terry as Grace who is utterly unforgettable. Perhaps it’s because we repeatedly see her, rooted to the spot, watching as we watch. In the very first scene she appears frozen to the staircase in the centre of the stage, unable to wrench her feet from where they’re planted, paralysed as if in a nightmare. And it makes you wonder – this constant, almost invisible presence – whether we should indeed read it all as a horrific dream.
There’s more to Grace’s watchful presence, though, than a straightforward framing of the events as a nightmare. By adding an observer, Mitchell throws light on the process of observing. Tinker, too, is often looking on, but his is a different kind of watching. He’s the sinister voyeur – never more so than when watching a peep show, whose performer seems to both attract and repel him. Terry’s Grace, meanwhile, often looks on with tormented compassion, yet able only to helplessly witness. These are our models for watching, making us aware of our own, far from passive involvement as audience members.
“Picture this,” sings a child’s voice in an unsettling rendition of Blondie’s song (just one in a series of inspired musical choices). It’s an invitation to our imaginations, as is Mitchell’s production, even with all its naturalistic touches. There is still, for all the realistic gore, a mental leap. There’s also a choice: a choice to keep watching, like Grace, or to avert our eyes. Why can’t we look away?
At home I have a book full of photographs of abandoned spaces. Barren post-industrial landscapes. Forsaken monuments to forgotten powers. Paint peeling from walls and weeds nudging through cracks. The beauty of their decay is breathtaking. I feel uncomfortably drawn to these ruins, perhaps in the same way I feel drawn to post-apocalyptic fiction. There’s something morbidly fascinating about visions of a world that has left us behind. I also think, as I devour image after crumbling image, how brilliant these would be as stage designs.
Alex Eales’ design for Cleansed could be right out of that book. Kane’s script famously specifies a university – a place of learning become a place of torture – but Mitchell and Eales make this institution much more vague. It could just as easily be a hospital – another ironic reversal that finds its echo in the repeated description of Tinker as a ‘doctor’. There are signs on the walls, but these are the only vestiges of its previous use, relics from another era. Time and nature are gnawing away at this place; the walls are shedding their skin of paint, while bare, spindly trees thrust up through the rotting floor. Dirt and rust and mould are creeping in.
Yet it’s beautiful. And as with those photographs, that’s where the difficulty lies. I’m troubled less by the violence in Cleansed (though it is troubling) than by the extreme beauty I find in it. To what end do we aestheticise acts of cruelty and sites of decay? The question of violence on stage is one that persistently nags at me, and one to which I have no easy answer. Even when cloaked in metaphor, the problem doesn’t disappear. Because those metaphors – Ellen McDougall’s bursting balloons in Henry the Fifth, or the oozing bags of ink in Dan Hutton’s take on The Spanish Tragedy – are beautiful too.
As a challenge, though, Cleansed is vivid and confronting and hauntingly memorable. Kane’s play is known for its series of audacious images – flowers bursting from nowhere, rats carrying off severed body parts – that throw down a gauntlet for any director. It seems to me that Mitchell picks up that gauntlet and then chucks it right at us as an audience. Her images leave us feeling deeply, almost painfully, and they leave us asking the questions that keep punctuating my writing. What are we seeing? What makes us watch? Why can’t we look away? And what is it about what we are seeing that is still, in spite of everything, disturbingly beautiful?
Main photo: Stephen Cummiskey.