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Sarah Kane in Berlin

Adam Jasper Smith

Mark Waschke and Matthias Matschke, Cleansed Mark Waschke and Matthias Matschke, Cleansed
photo Arno de Clair
In the middle of a 3 storey high dark wall, a room appears, sealed off by a pane of glass. A man in a suit enters the room from a concealed door, puts a coin in a slot, and another room next to him lights up. This room is almost identical to the first; a glass cage. In this room, a girl dances in her underwear. In the background a mechanical timer can be heard winding down. The man addresses the girl through the slot. He wants her to sit down. He wants her to show her face. He wants to tell her something. She sits down, she shows her face, but barely does he utter a word before the room snaps to black and he is alone.

The movements of the girl in the peepshow are slow and awkward. She is not exactly beautiful, and the enclosure in which she dances is a bare concrete box. The scene is obscene without being erotic. It is desolate. Depressing.

Depression of the clinical sort is marked by a loss of cathexis in the life of the sufferer, a general withdrawal of interest from the activities and pursuits that had once been diverting, a state known in medical literature as anhedonia. Symptomatic of this darkening of the outside world is a change in language. The depressed speak an atrophied, desiccated language, with words drained of meaning and colour. It is rare to see these words written down, even rarer to see them performed in the theatre. A little artistic melancholy, yes, but clinical depression? What sort of texts can we expect from those who experience no pleasure, from those who have made the gargantuan effort of writing to us at all?

This is the central problem of UK playwright Sarah Kane’s theatre. Shock and brutality made her work famous, but it would be an equally brutal misreading to see her plays as updated Elizabethan bloodbaths. Her work orbits around a question that already has a pedigree: what to do with words when they have no meaning? The language of Sarah Kane’s characters is singularly undramatic. Their speech slows, stumbles and repeats itself, becomes plaintive, begs, wheedles and orders, but rarely jokes. The signature expression is the flat imperative (“Take off your clothes”) or the naked question (“Aren’t we friends?”). The atrophied language of the depressed is absolute and instrumental. It doesn’t play.

It is fidelity to this aspect of Kane’s work that provided the foundation for Benedict Andrews’ staging of Cleansed at the Schaubühne in Berlin. Cleansed is the third of Sarah Kane’s theatre pieces in what became a closed cycle with her suicide at age 28. In contrast to earlier German language productions by Martin Kucej in Stuttgart or Peter Zadek in Berlin, Andrews does everything to take attention away from the blood and gore of the piece, with its multiple amputations and castrations. Instead, he returns the attention of the viewer to the language, to its cold, reified persistence, with words dropped and left like stones upon the floor of the stage.

The play opens with a doctor, Tinker, cooking up heroin for his patient Graham. The dose, injected through the eye, is fatal. Although dead, Graham remains on stage: as corpse, as memory and as interlocutor. He is present without being gruesome. Graham’s sister, Grace, comes to Tinker’s clinic in search of her lost brother. Not finding him, she asks at the very least for his clothes, an act of commitment that results in her taking his place as the chief object of Tinker’s care.

Grace and Graham are not the only inhabitants of the clinic. Alongside them are 3 others: Rod and Carl are lovers, Robin is alone. They form no community. Each character is limited, as if by invisible interdict, to communicating either with the one they love or with Tinker. There is no solidarity amongst those in the sanatorium: they don’t so much refuse to identify with each other as appear completely unaware of each other’s existence. A state that renders them all the more alienated and vulnerable, desperately starved of love and cannibalising each other in search of it.

Grace’s fatal act of love for Graham is mirrored by others, such as the unconditional declaration of love by Carl for Rod. None of these demonstrations goes unpunished, and just as Grace will be sacrificed, Carl will have his tongue and limbs removed by the good Doctor.

Tinker is not so much a character as the force of the world that punishes us for excessive closeness. His acts of violence are carried out without perceivable pleasure. This is crucial to Andrews’ staging because violence itself is always a stimulant, and if overdone it would destroy the precise monotony of the performance. As a result, even the blood that flows during the performance is black.

Tinker is not really a character. At least, no more a character than the set itself—a field of blank concrete, a wall beyond which there is nothing to escape to. In the centre of the stage a circular therapeutic pool is set. It serves as both baptismal font and slaughterhouse drain.

Three storeys above the stage, above the wall, in a mechanical heaven, a giant sprinkler system generates a fine mist that drifts down into the pool below. The set becomes reminiscent of Olafur Eliasson’s weather project in the Tate. The skin of the performers glistens with moisture. The mist becomes outright rain, and as it pours down on the actors below it suggests, perhaps, a path of redemption.

If there is a moral it’s that no one can be saved, but we can be erased. The black fluid that drains from the pool and the slow disappearance of the characters, accompanied by a loss of words, a shrinking vocabulary, leaves an emptiness that is perhaps what it is to be cleansed. It isn’t enough to wash away the filth; the carrier of the filth must be removed as well. The skin, then the flesh and everything underneath.

Cleansed, writer Sarah Kane, director Benedict Andrews; performers Matthias Matschke, Lars Eidinger, Jule Böwe, Christina Geisse, Mark Waschke, Felix Römer; Schaubühne, Berlin; May 28-June 4

RealTime issue #63 Oct-Nov 2004 pg. 12

© Adam Jasper Smith; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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