I think I have to admit to liking the idea of Katie Mitchell more than the reality. In the build-up to each appearance her productions makes on these shores, long-form pieces emerge, delving into her practise, and some of the mystery behind why she has become so totemic a figure in European theatre yet still regarded with some suspicion by parts of the British establishment (qv this piece in the Guardian). And I think yeah, she is different but maybe this time I’ll get it, maybe this time instead of just being challenged as an audience member, I’ll feel connected to her work too.
Safe to say though that Sarah Kane’s Cleansed was not the production for this breakthrough to occur. A notable event in marking Kane’s debut at the National Theatre and also a long-awaited return for Mitchell to the main programme on the South Bank after years of being frozen out by Hytner’s reluctance to let her loose on anything but children’s shows, it is naturally a hugely challenging event. Warnings abound of graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence, fainters have been reported at several performances (I reckon at least a couple of those must have been faking it just to get early release though), once again we ain’t in Kansas.
Not that we ever would have expected to be. Cleansed was the third play of five that Kane completed and blisters uglily from the start with its inspiration that “being in love is like being in Auschwitz”, testing a set of human relationships under the barbaric conditions of institutionalised torture. Short scene after short scene plays out as a woman hunts for her murdered brother who has come back to life, as a gay couple have their love for each other tested in the extreme, as a sex worker is endlessly exploited, as shadowy figures execute crime after crime under the control of sadistic and enigmatic Tinker.
It is unrelenting stuff – amputations, blindings, penetration, burnings, forced sex changes, drugs, rats, extended male and female nudity, all overseen by the gnomic figure of Tinker. And larger than that, Mitchell too looms, her tinkering with time slowing down key scenes of real menace and encouraging a real rawness from her company, especially in the surprisingly prescient forays into the fluidity of gender identity. But equally, the dream-like melding of one sequence into the next has an almost monotonous feel to it, the muted horror of so much stage violence experiencing considerably diminishing returns by the end.
And ultimately, I found myself disconnected entirely from Cleansed, this strangely dispassionate feeling at odds with what I felt I ought to be experiencing. There’s no doubting the ferocity of Michelle Terry’s performance as Grace, as anguish upon indignity is piled upon her, or Tom Mothersdale’s inscrutable turn as Tinker (has ever wanking seemed so joyless), or the intricacies of Alex Eales’ set design which allows improbable stage directions to manifest from thin air. But whether in Mitchell’s direction or Kane’s text or some unholy combination of the two, Cleansed completely lost me.