Why would anyone want to kill you?
Revenge. Things I've done.I read a lot of "pre-match hype" about Sarah Kane's Blasted, and found it difficult to shake off the stereotypes of it being a "cry for help" shortly before her suicide, and didn't know what to make of the hypocrisy (there is no other word for it) of critics, who denounced it as "filth" (among other things) at the time of its first production, but lined up to laud its genius after her death. Sean Holmes takes it on at the Lyric.
I went in braced for an onslaught of harrowing visual imagery. Blasted isn't as simple as that, however. It's a series of rather disjointed tableaux, darkly comical at times, post-apocalyptic at others, with shades of everything from Greek tragedy to Wilfred Owen to Kafka along the way.
Ian and Cate are spending idle time in a hotel. The hotel is plush but bland: perhaps a Hilton or Marriott. The nature of their relationship is never fully revealed; it is mainly sexual, abusive, domineerin on the part of Ian...but Cate does not walk away. Ian's foulmouthed misogyny and vices clearly have some sort of appeal. The dialogue is framented. Many questions are unanswered at this stage: why does Ian carry a gun?
The tone darkens as scene two opens: Lydia spits "Cunt" and it is clear that she has been violated in the night. Even now, the conversations are broken and ambiguous, Ian's paranoia ever more apparent. A soldier bursts into the room, and enages in philosophical debate about the nature of wartime atrocities with Ian. From then on, the surrealism, graphic brutality and black humour crescendo to a grotesque endpiece.
Danny Webb and Lydia Wilson take on the lead roles with mixed success. They are fearsomely difficult parts to play, and the uncomfortable chemistry that is inevitable between a foul-mouthed, abusive, paranoid alcoholic and an attractive introvert thirty years his junior, is clear to see. Webb, despite a rather bizarre accent, was excellent for the most part, although he took a while to warm up. His central conversation with the soldier (it reminded me of Owen's Strange Meeting) crackles with tension, coinciding with some of the best dialogue in the play, while his descent into the tattered rags of a man towards the end reminded me somewhat of the central character of Paul Theroux's deeply disturbing The Mosquito Coast - paranoid, self-destructing, hideous. Wilson, meanwhile, plays her part bravely, but rather surprisingly is let down by technical basics rather than a lack of depth: her hammy stutter, unconvincing movement, and inability to deliver the humorous lines, are all surely details that could be ironed out, as she tackles the uncomfortable role fearlessly.
In truth the script left me rather cold. The soldier dialogue, Ian's complete mental collapse in the later stages, and some of the black gags are terrific, but ultimately I didn't find the play particularly thought-provoking as a whole. Is it shocking? Yes, the material is pretty graphic, but again, I found it all leaving little emotion on me. Much of the attention is understandably on Ian's grapples with the morals of suicide, but these are only really interesting in the context of the playwright's situation - little original thinking is presented. Meanwhile, for truly horrifying rape scenes, look no further than The Paper Birds' In a thousand pieces or Biuro Podrozy's Carmen funebre which are both infinitely more harrowing, without an explicit scene in sight. (The Paper Birds take their latest show Others to the Camden People's Theatre in a couple of weeks). But the shocking truth for me was that it all left me feeling a bit nonplussed.
Sean Holmes left me feeling pretty flat with his Three Sisters earlier this year. This time, his production is terrific, with only irritating details from the actors letting the side down. The post-holocaust latter scenes are quite brilliant, and the final scene rightly had the audience gripped in horror. A special mention to Paule Constable's lighting, which was particularly good.
Finally, a gripe. I was running late, and charged from the tube station, thrust my tenner at the box office staff, and hurried upstairs, sweating, into the auditorium at a minute to seven. It was practically empty. I had to check my ticket to confirm that it was indeed a 7pm start. Only ten minutes later did the press night audience start wandering in, seemingly under no pressure from staff to hurry up and get to their seats, and some even wandered out again to refill their drinks. The show finally got under way at a quarter past, seemingly because the becocktaildressed PR team couldn't be bothered to chivvy the critics inside. Now, I know it's press night and there are whims to be pandered to, but that strikes me as discourteous and disrespectful to the paying punters. If there's an advertised time, there should be no reason (technical hitches apart) not to stick to it.
Verdict: a brutal but disjointed script is overhyped, but neither that nor stilted acting can spoil a thoughtful production of this post-holocaust vision. Worth seeing.
Until 20 November. Tickets from £10.