Cleansed, National Theatre

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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.

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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.

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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?

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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.

 

Not Working But Wandering

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“Walking, ideally, is a state of mind in which the mind, the body and the world are aligned, as though they were three characters finally in conversation together, three notes suddenly making a chord. Walking allows us to be in our bodies and in the world without being made busy by them. It leaves us free to think without being wholly lost in our thoughts.”
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust

Walking has always been my cure of choice. When feeling beaten down or uninspired, I have a habit of taking my frustrations outside, of treading my anxieties into pavement or path. Even living in London for the past year and a half, where walking for its own sake feels less natural (especially – oh, how I hate that this remains the case – as a woman), wandering has been a refuge.

Slowly reading my way through Rebecca Solnit’s Wanderlust, then, is an amble of delight and recognition. I love the unapologetic subjectivity of its voice; I love its idiosyncratic approach to the narrating of a history; I love its easy traversing of different terrains, moving fluidly through anecdote to literature to politics. And in its very form it finds the harmony of thought that walking allows, its intellectual rambling at once free and yet absolutely grounded in the landscape of the world we live in.

For days now I have been wrestling with how to write about all the things I have not been writing about, the shows that have been accusingly piling up behind me while work is tugging my attention in other directions. Until, devouring another chapter of Wanderlust in the snatched moments before sleep the other night, I thought of turning this too into a wander – a liberating meander rather than a joyless trudge towards my destination.

And how apt that two of the pieces of theatre that have been itching at my mind are about landscapes both literal and metaphorical, places to be walked and thought through. Both were seen at the caravan showcase in Brighton, where I was busy blogging and tweeting for Farnham Maltings, doing my best to act as a window for the outside world. Over the course of three days, I packed in as many shows and discussions as possible, punctuated by frantic tapping at my laptop keyboard.

So when I saw Landscape II, the new Melanie Wilson show that I had been kicking myself for missing ever since its run at BAC last year, I was tired. A small detail, but an important one. Because Landscape II, Wilson’s delicate tapestry of the lives of three women, requires a certain quality of concentration – one that I found myself struggling to give it. Its exquisite layering of story, sound and video offers a sort of sensory overload; as an audience member, you are required to sift through the information even as the narrative runs on. But strangely, at the same time as the mind scrabbles to piece things together, the pace of the show itself feels gorgeously unhurried. Time does funny things.

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Reflecting on the piece now, a couple of weeks after seeing it, I find it hard to draw together all its separate strands. What I remember is that it is about three women, separated by time and brutal circumstance, their stories overlapping with one another, the personal and the political bleeding together. Wilson narrates these stories from a desk to the side of the stage, the majority of which is dominated by an off-white, roughly textured wall – much like that of the cottage that is central to the action – which vividly blooms into life thanks to Will Duke’s projected video (perhaps the most stunningly simple use of projection I’ve seen used in a theatre). There is also a beautifully textured sound design, manipulated live on stage by Wilson, lulling and occasionally jolting us in our seats.

Wilson has a very particular quality as a performer, a quality that is not easy to render in words. It is something about her presence in the room – her half smile, the way she holds herself – but it is mostly about her voice. Gentle, hypnotic, almost sustained at one level tone, but peppered with the lightest of inflections. Sometimes, dangerously, soporific. During Landscape II, that mesmerising mode of delivery found me drifting. Not unpleasantly, I might add, and I wonder if that is the very experience the piece invites, though I would like to see it again and focus more intently on its different elements. While drifting, I found myself thinking about Gertrude Stein and her comments on the doubled, dislocated time of theatre, demanding as it constantly does an effort on the part of the spectator. I also thought, aptly, of her “landscape theatre”. Perhaps Wilson’s various landscapes invite a sort of imaginary walking, in which wandering off the path can be just as rewarding as sticking closely to its tracks.

There was a similar quality, I found, to the experience of watching Ours Was the Fen Country. Again, I was tired. Before seeing it, I had heard Dan Canham’s show described as “verbatim dance theatre”, a concept that intrigued me all by itself. What might that look like? As it turns out, this hybrid genre manifests itself as a series of recordings, performed interview material (using the same headphone technique that Alecky Blythe is now well known for), sound and movement. It all stems from Canham’s research in the Fens, a fading landscape that is evoked on stage by its words and images and a careful physicalisation of its atmosphere.

Like the place it explores, Ours Was the Fen Country is strange, haunting, sometimes bleak and sometimes beautiful. As with Landscape II, it is possible to drift in and out, at some times tuning in to the words of the Fen inhabitants, at others to the movements of the performers. I would have loved to have seen more of that movement, which suddenly elevates the piece each time it breaks through. There is one particularly magical moment, early on in the piece, where the leap from spoken to embodied history elicits a collective shiver. Words fall into a rhythm, pattered out by one pair of feet, then more, until all of the performers are moving as one. It is dance, but it is also work and walking and tracing the same steps day after day, animating the landscape as a collective body.

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Perhaps one of the reasons I love walking is because it offers one of the few interludes when I feel completely untethered from work. I like the idea, articulated by Solnit, that “walking is an amateur act”. When walking as an act in its own right rather than as a way of propelling myself from A to B, I am aimless in the best of ways; no destination or deadline directs the rise and fall of my feet. Elsewhere, I am either working or feeling guilty about not working, but when I walk I am absorbed by the gentle physical activity, comfortable in my thoughts and my body.

Recently I have been thinking a lot, both personally and academically, about work. I repeat to myself the words “work is not a moral good” (I think I need a sign to put up somewhere in my room) but I still act as though it is. I write these sentences in a paper about artistic labour, knowing as I do that they uncannily describe my own relationship to my work:

“In many ways, cultural work presents an ideal example of immaterial labour, marrying as it does often intangible outputs with precarious working conditions, ever-lengthening hours and the insidious erosion of distinctions between work and life – all of which is endured and even celebrated under the banner of creativity, self-expression and flexibility. Love for one’s work becomes an agent of one’s own exploitation.” 

I do love my work, but I also love the moments around it, the moments that are not work in any real sense but that feed richly into both work and life. The time that I am lucky enough to spend in rehearsal rooms (time that has happily found a bit of space in my life again in the last few weeks) seems to fall into that latter category. There is something about those spaces – at least, the spaces that I have been fortunate enough to be welcomed into – that feels freeing, weightless almost. I’ve almost always experienced an atmosphere of calm of the kind described by Chris Goode, even when the making itself might be at its most frantic. As when walking, I feel that I am in a place somehow apart, yet still closely connected with the world outside. And then, of course, there’s that breathless thrill of witnessing the moments when stuff really happens, when discoveries are made for the very first time and the thinking in the room suddenly shifts.

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I wonder if part of the reason why I loved Secret Theatre Show 5 so much was that it takes place in a rehearsal room – more specifically, the rehearsal room at the Lyric Hammersmith, where the Secret Theatre company have been experimenting for the past year. This space could not be more appropriate for the company’s latest show, which feels in many ways like the absolute expression of the collective way of working that the ensemble have been playing with over a process of months. It is a piece which is clearly born from this particular group of people and from the room that they have created together; the room that we now sit in, with them.

Walking in, everything about the framing of the piece immediately appeals to me. The intimate sharing of the space, the inbuilt risk and spontaneity, the visible traces of the company’s process on the very walls of the room. And watching it produces the palpable sensation of sharing a room with a group of people just having a brilliant time together – a sensation which is fiercely infectious. It’s thoughtful and complex and messy, but also joyful and chaotic, full of music, play, dancing. Oh, the dancing. Rarely (if ever) have I grinned and gurned so much during a piece of theatre.

Speaking to Joel Horwood (who acted as dramaturg on this show) afterwards, he told me that the starting provocations for the piece were community, hope and transcendence. Add joy and anarchy to that list and – without giving any more away – that just about captures what the company have produced.

I can’t pretend that Show 5 is perfect. When I see it, still early in the preview run, there are moments that stutter, while I wonder if it needs a slightly more robust dynamic at its heart to drive it along. But its imperfections only make me more fond of it. Not for a minute to dismiss its intelligence, my reaction to Show 5 operated firmly on the level of feeling rather than intellect. It made my heart skip, sing and burst. It made me want to go back again and again and again, both to watch the shifts in the piece and to be swallowed whole by it once more. I just fucking loved it.

There is, as ever, more to write about. I want to pin down why I was so utterly, strangely compelled by A String Section and everything it so implicitly yet so powerfully says about being a woman; to capture the spine-tingling marriage of music and storytelling in The Bullet and the Bass Trombone; to unpack the almost unbearable tension that pervades Ivo van Hove’s astonishing production of A View from the Bridge, which I finally saw on Friday night; to write once again about what a tight, gripping piece of writing Grounded is and how much of a rock star Lucy Ellinson is in it.

But every wander comes to a halt, and I fear I have already rambled (in both senses of the word) too much. So I will bring my (metaphorical) feet full circle and end, as I began, with Solnit:

“Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world.”

(The photos above were all taken on some of my favourite walks, and I also used a couple of them in my write-up of The Forest and the Field – a meander in prose if ever there was one)