Marin Ireland, the cool presence at the center of the belated New York premiere of Sarah Kane’s Blasted, turns inward at the play’s most outrageous affronts to decorum. Her retreat is simple and enthralling. Hanging back on her first entrance, Ireland never fully surrenders to the stage’s demand for total exposure. She has an animal alertness—knowing, dubious, resisting the narrative’s concussive action with a panoramic form of looking. When her character, Cate, later falls into the actual closed-off spaces of fainting spells, they seem merely the most spectacular instances of her scorn for other characters’ invasive intimacy.
Blasted confines Cate and her onetime lover Ian, a middle-aged journalist, to a Leeds hotel room as a never-explained war rages outside. It takes little time for the external violence to make itself felt inside their refuge. Yet among the many virtues of director Sarah Benson’s Soho Rep production is its dissent from the conventional wisdom about Kane: Far from being “in yer face” (that awful phrase, coined by the play’s first British critics), this Blasted is indifferent to us. Even Louisa Thompson’s set, in a remarkable transformation, pulls back as the action grows more aggressive. Artaud, often cited as an influence on the play, has nothing to do with the production’s diffidence and measured pacing—these elements are of far greater interest than the stomach-turning scenes of torture. On the page, the violence can seem facile. On the stage, however, images of a far different order sear the memory. Not the sporadic moments of tenderness that some readers have cited: Those are too fleeting to redeem the abjection. Rather, it’s the banal sequences that are more persuasive of the characters’ psychological complexity.
Reed Birney carefully shapes Ian’s burnt-out sourness and concedes an emasculation that makes his violent outbursts all the more disorienting. A plain phrase such as “It’s good”—Cate’s answer when Ian asks why she likes football—is, as Ireland says it, brimming with erotic relish, the pleasure enhanced by being indecipherable to her questioner. Compelling for opposite reasons is her poise during the first of many degradations. Crouched on the bed, she looks down and away, her face hidden by her curtain of hair, as Ian uses her hand to masturbate. Lest the scene fix an image of her submissiveness, Ireland upends it when she later drops her voice to a surprising baritone to deliver Cate’s obscene one-word judgment on her tormentor. At such moments, the production’s economy helps us see the many ways Blasted anticipates Kane’s radically private Crave and 4.48 Psychosis.
Kane’s rational structure becomes increasingly prominent as Blasted seems, deceptively, to devolve into pure instinct. Benson ensures we recognize that Cate’s first actions—caressing every surface of the room with almost sexual intensity—predict the characters’ more brutal manipulations of one another’s bodies. A battered Ian’s desperate plea to Cate near the end—”Touch me!”—restores to her the power he earlier seized. Other actions, innocuous at first, detonate later. Cate sucking her thumb and picking over the room-service sandwiches are the unremarkable preambles to subsequent scenes of grotesque ingestion, biting, gagging, and purging.
Most unsettling is Kane and Benson’s conclusion to their narrative of seeing. Cate’s early watchfulness anticipates the unblinking gaze of a soldier (Louis Cancelmi) who invades their room. (“Tell them you saw me,” he says to Ian, nearly quoting Godot.) Both characters’ emphatic vision makes inevitable the Gloucester-like attack on Ian’s sight near the end, an act we should take less as a gratuitous affront than as an indictment: We are its implicit object. Even our admiration for Cate’s evasion of attention now seems prurient.
So, too, the frequent pathologizing of Kane’s work since her suicide in 1999. After a decade in which Blasted has been more talked about than seen, Kane resurfaces on a stage that prevents us from making her our own.