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Cleansed: how far is too far?

Katie Mitchell’s new production of Cleansed for the National Theatre has taken the Sarah Kane play’s escalating sequence of horror imagery to gory levels of realism. With the press abuzz with reports of five-or-so spectators fainting, playwright and GMT performer Andi Denny looks at the question many of us have been hard-pushed to avoid in the aftermath: how far is too far?

Whenever Sarah Kane’s Cleansed comes up in conversation, it all comes back: memories of pulling my 20-year old self along the wall of a theatre, tongue ‘cut out’, drooling blood and wailing in pain behind the audience’s backs, the hair on their necks noticeably on-end. In the scenes that followed, I lost my hands, feet and genitals in a similar, violent way for similar, symbolic reasons. Dark and brutal and, what I thought at the time, totally pretentious. A comic actor’s dream. This week, predictably, few have been laughing.

Understanding why Kane’s work contains such violence is complex, but while the late playwright has often been falsely accused of going for cheap shock tactics, it’s this shock that’s central to what she’s trying to achieve – keeping us from getting immersed or complacent about what we’re watching. The reality is that we’ve largely stopped paying attention to theatre, even when it can be a bit morally odd. Musicals provide some of the most perfect examples. The King and I puts a charming spin on our own vile history of colonisation. South Pacific glamorises war. We forget that our beloved Jet Boys are xenophobic thugs (and would-be rapists) because they sing and dance and crack wise, and we cry for straight-up murderer Tony because: musicals. Sweeney Todd, Phantom and Chicago all have us rooting for murderers, too, and Sally Bowles’ willingness to accept Nazi rule for an easy life is easily forgotten. We’re mostly fine with Grease teaching young girls that the only way to get acceptance from guys, even the ones who love them, is to model themselves after that chain-smoking mean girl who sings about how unhappy she is being a hardened sexbomb. As much as we love them, many of our favourite shows have problematic themes and messages, but we’ll usually just pretend they’re not there. We’ve all been in classrooms of pre-teen boys singing “pussy wagon” and “did she put up a fight?” It’s not always something, but it’s not always nothing.

Playwrights like Kane have tried to fight this sort of audience complacency. If you’re seeing violent, racist teenagers or misogynistic men on stage in anything even resembling a Kane play, you can bet you’re going to notice. Mitchell is no stranger to directing brutal imagery and shockingly extreme language, either, to create these effects in her productions. No amount of ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ is going to wash out the image of a drawn-and-quartered Bernardo or the sounds of Maria growling sexual slurs as she prepares to hang herself. Moments like these would be upsetting, but in Kane’s world they should be. We often forget with theatre that we’re talking about an art form which has thrived through its ability to affect audiences, but this isn’t easy to achieve. Kane (particularly in her earlier, more brutal works of which Cleansed is one) recognises how desensitised audiences are. We’ve watched Trainspotting and Clockwork Orange and SAW and Final Destination and the opening scenes of Saving Private Ryan. We see daily reports of disaster and terrorism and war and ignore many of them. The most successful shows in television history include Criminal Minds and multiple editions of both CSI and Law and Order. When images of death and violence and sex are part of our daily lives, how else can a play be truly affecting anymore unless it shocks us awake (or, in this case, not)?

With such a high level of public tolerance to somehow outdo, we come back to: how far is too far? Schools of thought range wildly on what “should” be acceptable in performance, and of course our own moral limitations dictate what we’ll create or watch. But the truth is that, for many contemporary theatre makers, it is not unacceptable to push the limits right up to where things become illegal. Most playwrights will never work with such visceral brutality as Kane – even those who try will struggle to match her skill and poetry – but many would consider it perfectly okay to read or see or stage such a play.

The suggestion that Mitchell’s production of Cleansed has crossed a line, then, is a hard one to swallow. Limitations in the experience you create for an audience are all about consent – what is being done to the audience, and have they given you the right to present it to them? Physical interaction with audience members is the most obvious danger-zone when it comes to consent, but there there is none of that here. Most importantly, the decision to attend will be largely an informed one. Cleansed is not an unpopular play. Kane is not an unknown playwright. Both are infamous and still influential, especially among the well-versed theatre-goers making up the majority of the audience. Even without that prior knowledge, the public are made aware of the graphic content before purchasing tickets. Yes, Cleansed is frequently staged in a less realistic manner than Mitchell’s production, and yes, it is a difficult experience watching the play’s moments of rape, mutilation, castration, forced gender-reassignment, murder and suicide (more than one of which occur during a sex scene in a pit of mud – not my most dignified moment), but in a room full of consenting adults who know that these acts are not real, how can it go too far? We may not enjoy watching staged violence, we’re not supposed to. We may not personally understand it, what it’s there to do, why anyone would create it, why anyone would pay to see it, why more people didn’t walk out, but art is subjective. When plenty of people *do* get it, *do* appreciate it, and *do* know its value, and when even our favourite musicals are morally complicated, is there a line for Cleansed to cross?

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