Fall Preview: Sarah Kane's Notorious Blasted Finally Receives its New York Premiere

Eating up baby

Sarah Kane's 1995 play Blasted opens in "a very expensive hotel room in Leeds—so expensive it could be anywhere in the world." In the first scene, a childlike woman and a grizzled journalist—former lovers—drink champagne, munch sandwiches, and discuss their relationship. But by the play's end, that same room teems with rubble, blood, a body with its head blown off, another buried beneath the floorboards, and the filthy shroud of a baby (the baby itself has been eaten).

When Blasted premiered in the winter of 1995 at London's Royal Court, journalists on the left adopted a pose of weary disdain—The Guardian's Michael Billington originally called it "naïve tosh"—while more conservative critics attacked it as immoral and obscene. Jack Tinker in the Daily Mail described it as "this disgusting feast of filth." Yet, in the years since that inaugural performance and Kane's suicide in 1999, at the age of 28, Blasted has entered the theatrical canon as a contemporary classic, a scorching exploration of the origins and consequences of violence. After 13 years, Blasted will finally make its New York debut, on October 2, at Soho Rep, directed by artistic director Sarah Benson.

Why has a play now so highly regarded taken such a long time to arrive Off-Broadway? Benson, who first encountered the script as a British high-school student, can't explain the delay. "Well," she says, with some understatement, "it's not a barrel of laughs." Billington, who has since revised his initial impressions and now regards Blasted as possessing "somber power," believes that theaters dependent on subscribers may have worried over the script's excesses. He also proposes another possible reason for the play's New York absence. Blasted, he says, "is a deeply European work, in that it's based on a specific premise: What if the violence of the Bosnian civil war were to happen in our own British backyard?"

Blasted cast members Louis Cancelmi, Marin Ireland, and Reed Birney. Headless body not pictured.
Willie Davis/VERAS

Blasted cast members Louis Cancelmi, Marin Ireland, and Reed Birney. Headless body not pictured.

In a 1996 interview, Kane explained: "The logical conclusion of the attitude that produces an isolated rape in England is the rape camps in Bosnia. And the logical conclusion to the way society expects men to behave is war." The Bosnian conflict never had quite the impact in the U.S. that it had in Europe. (Certainly, it didn't provoke nearly so many responses in the form of films and plays.) But the war in Iraq, and information about some of the atrocities committed there, may inform the new production. Louisa Thompson, the production's designer, says that she and Benson have looked at photos of the aftermath of terrorist attacks in Iraq for ideas about the set.

Benson suggests, however, that her interest in the play is rooted less in its analogues to any current conflict and more in a universal exploration of "how tiny, personal violations" can lead to greater and greater violence. And despite the play's rapes, decapitation, and baby-eating, Benson sees Blasted as somewhat optimistic. "I think it's hopeful," she says. "Kane believes in human nature." And indeed, even amid all the devastation, the play ends in a show of generosity, as one character kneels to feed another. Marin Ireland, who will play Cate, the young woman, describes the play as "interested in the nature of compassion, in the connections between love and cruelty, in the boundaries between human beings. It's got so much beauty and humor . . . . It's a love story, but it's so terrifying—which is definitely true about love."

Perhaps Blasted will incur the same sort of shock and derision that greeted its inaugural British production. Certainly, portions will be very difficult to watch. (The prop designer, Sarah Birdhouse, has her hands full—and rather sticky—designing that edible baby filled with stage blood.) Yet Kane intended that difficulty, that discomfort. She told an interviewer: "If we can experience something through art, then we might be able to change our future, because experience engraves lessons on our hearts through suffering." Blasted won't provide a pleasant evening at the theater, but it might just offer a necessary one.

Starts October 2, Soho Rep, 46 Walker Street, sohorep.org.

Wig Out!

Starts September 10

"Beauty draws us with a single hair," wrote Alexander Pope—so imagine how much beauty might be contained in the celebration of coiffeurs that Tarell Alvin McCraney's new play offers. McCraney made an impressive and serious debut last season with The Brothers Size at the Public. Now, he turns to sisters of a sort: two Harlem drag queens who head fashion houses of the kind depicted in Paris Is Burning. Tina Landau directs these hirsute histrionics. The Vineyard Theatre, 108 East 15th Street,vineyardtheatre.org.

Anger/Nation

Starts September 11

On the evidence of their various plays and raucous post-performance parties, the theater collective Radiohole is on excellent terms with the demon alcohol. So it comes as some surprise that they've based their latest piece on the adventures of temperance campaigner Carrie Nation. Radiohole will match Ms. Nation with experimental filmmaker Kenneth Anger to create a sort of "Teetotal Babylon." Eric Dyer, Scott Halvorsen Gillette, Maggie Hoffman, and guest performer Iver Findlay promise "miniature floating video monitors, Post-It notes, licorice, and a healthy dose of fairy dust." The Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street, thekitchen.org.
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