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The Theatreguide.London Review

Lyric Hammersmith Theatre       Autumn 2010

Sarah Kane's 1995 play includes at least five simulated sexual acts, none of them friendly, one particularly ugly bit of simulated onstage torture, several simulated epileptic fits, simulated urination and defecation, a touch of simulated cannibalism, and graphic descriptions of offstage rapes and other atrocities.

I just thought you ought to know.

The play opens in a Leeds hotel as an alcoholic and cancer-ridden journalist and possibly part-time MI5 agent seeks comfort from an old girlfriend who wants little to do with him.

Abruptly a soldier breaks in, a bomb goes off, and we are somehow in the middle of a Bosnia-type war zone, with the brutalised and dehumanised soldier bragging of the atrocities he has committed out there and then committing a few more in here, leaving the original two characters to attempt to survive this new reality.

Kane's intention was to equate, or at least draw a connection between, the casual racism, sexual violence and general brutality of the man-on-the-street journalist and the extreme atrocities of war; if we allow the one, then we are opening the door to the other.

It's a legitimate point, and one wishes that the young writer had been able to make it with more control and focus than she did.

Unlike Martin McDonagh, Kane doesn't present her shocks with much imagination or wit; unlike Edward Bond, she doesn't make the political metaphor clear and central to the play's meaning.

As a result, the string of shock effects becomes just beating a dead horse (one atrocity she missed), decreasing in all but their Yuck power as they mount up.

You may, long after leaving the theatre, piece together intellectually what Kane was getting at, but you won't feel it at the time.

Danny Webb as the reporter struggles to hold our attention to a character we never particularly like and have trouble feeling any sympathy for.

Lydia Wilson plays the girl somewhat stronger, I think, than she's written, which makes it difficult for her to make much sense, as we wonder why she's staying in this room where she doesn't want to be.

Aiden Kelly as the soldier can't escape the sense that the character has wandered in from some other play and doesn't know what he's doing here.

Sean Holmes' direction pays attention to meticulous details, like the way a man has a gut-wrenching coughing fit and then immediately lights another cigarette.

But the same micro-management means that every scene and every bit of business is extended far longer than necessary, like a film editor who doesn't know where to cut, and the end result is ponderous and rhythmless, just plodding from one shock effect to the next with diminishing returns.

Gerald Berkowitz

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