Wednesday 24 February 2016

Cleansed – National Theatre, London

[seen 23/02/16]

Katie Mitchell’s production of Cleansed is astonishing. Obviously. It was never going to be anything else, was it? So what a review needs to do is to quantify in some way the manner of this astonishment.

[I should say that as well as watching tonight’s press night performance, I also saw a run-through maybe a week before the first preview. I’m glad I did, because that rehearsal essentially let me know what the production I was going to would be doing. Seeing the production then allowed me to see those things realised. It strikes me that this is an excellent way of seeing a piece like this. Because, let’s face it, Cleansed is a play that comes with *a lot* of preconceptions, a lot of critical baggage. I wonder if everyone with any taste in theatre already has their idealised production in their head? I think I’m guilty of having had at least three. And, crucially, this wasn’t any of them. So I was glad to get into the rehearsal run and see what this one was about before seeing it. I also listened to the excellent short interview with Mitchell on Radio 4 before seeing the show, and was enthralled by her description of what Tinker in the play is doing – torturing people to test their love. For me, that is “a reading” of the play. It just happens to be an incredibly convincing one. One that I’m happy to buy into and see explored, even if it’s something that I’d never have thought of myself. And in a way, I think that’s...]

What I want from great directors is a way of seeing a play that I could never have imagined for myself. And this is exactly what Mitchell gives us here.

Sarah Kane’s second Royal Court play, Cleansed, is set in “a university”. A man called Tinker is “treating” and torturing Grace’s heroin addict brother Graham, and gay couple Rod and Carl. A young man called Robin is similarly imprisoned. Tinker also forms a kind of relationship with a woman who also calls herself Grace, who seems to be imprisoned in a kind of coin-operated peepshow.

The text itself must be one of the most analysed in modern British theatre history. We seem to “know” so much about the apparent geneses of its various components. We know about regimes using university buildings (or sports stadiums, or schools) as concentration camps. We know about the variant on “crucifixion” of inserting a pole into the anus and pushing it through the body avoiding all the major organs to cause slow, painful death. We know about the mutilation of Lavinia in Titus Andronicus. We even know that at least one line could be a relative of the same line when it was written by Ian Curtis.

It now feels a bit like all that “knowledge” rather gets in between the audience and the play (well, it was a worry for me, anyway). An achievement here is that this production is so thorough-going, such a complete imagining of a world, that you essentially just watch *it*. It erases *everything* else, so that you are immersed in this singular vision of the work.

In terms of the production, it’s impossible to know what to talk about first. Alex Eales’s stage design is utterly superb. A cross-section of institutional corridor with rooms off, old signs, trees growing against windows, and even plants growing up through ruined floor tiles. (And, if the “university” angle hadn’t been so clearly reiterated in pre-publicity, I’d have suggested that the corridor could have been in a hospital, opening yet another vast realm of (mis-)reading.) The way it’s lit (by Jack Knowles) seems perfect. I mean, really, it’s “just” lifelike. But there are so many decisions even there, that they could all pass entirely unremarked just because they work, and you don’t think about them, but, my God, it’s so precise. And pretty much every lighting state perfectly suits the scene that it illuminates.

Perhaps even more crucial than the set and lighting is the sublime sound design (sound design – Melanie Wilson, music – Paul Clark). I don’t think there’s a single moment of silence until the end. The piece is essentially through-scored, not just with “sound effects” (birdsong, helicopters and the like), but with this vast, cavernous echoey *place*, built out of music and noise. I don’t even pretend to know who did what, the music seems designed and the sound feels musical. The show also includes perhaps the coolest use of one of the coolest songs in existence, and frankly, hearing that played at any volume in a show that’s already this good... At the National Theatre of Great Britain... To put it starkly, Cleansed has perhaps my favourite sonic setting for a show since Gisele Vienne’s I Apologize or This Is How You Will Disappear. We’re talking all-time bests here.

The cast are great too. Although, something fascinating is how little dialogue, or even speaking happens in the piece. I think there’s probably more than you register, but this is really not a play driven by either dialogue or exposition. There are exchanges, but they are mostly short and desperate. A real skill here is the extent to which they feel that they could be improvised. So, what the performers are really doing here is performing actions and moving. In this respect, Michelle Terry should get extra credit for her performance as Grace. I don’t think the script stipulates that Grace is present throughout – I *think* it’s a directorial invention – but it’s an inspired bit of thinking. As a result of at least Terry’s physical presence on stage, more-or-less solidly throughout, often fearlessly naked, we are given an additional through-line through this illusive text.

Terry’s presence is also a good way into talking about the way that the production appears to play with what on stage is *actually meant to be real*. For example, there are black-clad and masked “orderlies” or “stage managers” or “torturers” who bring in different tables, chairs, trolleys of surgical instruments, etc. We can see them quite clearly, so we know they’re there. And sometimes they interact with the named, costumed characters of the piece – at which point we (well, I) can also assume they’re “real” in the world of the play? And yet at other times they seem to walk backwards, or in slow-motion, mostly strikingly carrying umbrellas and white funeral flowers; seemingly recreating Graham’s funeral as his entirely corporeal ghost holds his sister. But a lot of the rest of the time, it feels like we just filter them out. Or watch them as if they’re not really there. (I wish I had my copy of the script with me. But I’m pretty certain they’re not in it. [Edit: apparently they are.])

This issue of presence/invisibility is the most naked demonstration that even what we’re seeing isn’t strictly linear or literal. And yet, here, it’s presented with such a realistic conviction, that you don’t fully think to question the lines spoken by someone whose tongue we’ve just seen cut out.

The overall effect of the piece is curiously like watching a piece of dance-theatre. It’s as if Kane was really creating a kind of Pina Bausch-like ballet about torture and love, and it’s only in production that this aspect of the whole can be realised. I should say, I don’t believe for a moment that this is an inevitable consequence of someone choosing to put this play on stage. While appearing to be wholly faithful and a very “pure” version of the script, this Cleansed is brimming with tonal choices and interpretations.

I will also say, I might have got a bit used to seeing this sort of thing in Germany. In terms of Mitchell’s work, this Cleansed feels like a direct relative of her Alles Weitere... in Hamburg. What was perhaps most thrilling about this production was the simple fact of walking outside afterwards and being in Britain. It’s probably cheap and sentimental to suggest, but this feels like a real landmark production: not just Kane arriving at the National (and Mitchell triumphantly returning there), but also British theatre becoming recognisably European.



I don’t think the sheer joy of seeing this played at the NT is going to wear off any time soon.

And this bit is just amazing:

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Saw it during previews so would love to think what might have changed. You're right that the masked figures aren't in the script and Grace isn't stipulated as being onstage throughout but, yeah, it all completely works. It's like Mitchell's created a whole world and is more interested in seeing what people do in this world than what they're actually saying (praise, not criticism) so the dialogue just emerges naturally without any trace of "ACTING" that you usually see the NT. Trying to work out when I can see it again!