— Photo credit: Tim Matheson
Blasted is a hard play to love but you certainly have to admire its fearlessness and the fearlessness of Pi Theatre director Richard Wolfe and his cast in this first Vancouver mounting. Opening to great controversy in London in 1995, Blasted has now become something of a modern classic, although the fact that this is only its second Canadian production suggests how contrary to our cultural mores the play might be. There’s nothing polite or restrained or, for that matter, subtle about it.
Written during the atrocities of the Yugoslavian civil war by a suicidal young woman with an extraordinarily dark vision of life, Blasted pulls no punches. This was Sarah Kane’s first play. She killed herself four years later at the age of 28. It draws on a tradition of modern British plays that, for moral and political purposes, aimed to shock audiences into a new consciousness with graphic onstage violence, plays like Howard Brenton’s The Romans in Britain (homosexual rape) and Edward Bond’s Saved (a baby stoned to death in its carriage).
We’re in a hotel room in London where Ian (Michael Kopsa), a Welsh journalist and, apparent security operative, has brought his young (ex-?) girlfriend Cate (Cherise Clarke). It’s not entirely clear why they’re there or what their relationship is. He wants to have sex but she doesn’t. (They do anyway, with a good deal of violence.) He’s jumpy and paranoid (also racist and homophobic), carries a gun, probably has lung cancer and is afraid of dying. She’s working class, fragile, sucks her thumb, stutters and has epileptic fits. Outside, something terrible is happening, a storm is gathering. The mood is tense and rich with possibility and subtext.
In the second half of the play the storm breaks, the violence becomes manifest, the subtext disappears. A paramilitary character simply called Soldier in the script (Raresh DiMofte), with perhaps a Serbian accent, comes into the room and wreaks havoc. He tells a terrible, graphic story of the horrors inflicted on his girlfriend during a civil war, and his intention to get revenge by reproducing those horrors on others. Bombs explode, a baby dies, there’s rape, cannibalism and other atrocities. It’s apocalypse now.
The play ends on a note of minimal tragic optimism (the last words in the play are “thank you”), underlined for me by the visual image of Ian, his eyes covered by a bloody bandage. Here again Kane and director Wolfe appear to be invoking theatrical predecessors: Oedipus Rex, King Lear, Beckett’s Endgame. This is ambitious and audacious theatre, even if Kane was overreaching in aiming for contemporary tragedy with that kind of pedigree.
Wolfe’s production is terrific. Drew Facey’s set explodes with detailed realism, Jeff Harrison’s lighting paints the stage with just the right shades of darkness, and Remy Siu’s sound design is spooky, intense and surreal. Wolfe makes the simulated sex scenes, always awkward and chancy in live theatre, appropriately graphic and effective.
And the acting is very strong. Ian is a man on the verge of a breakdown, and Kopsa plays the whole show right at that edge. Clarke does a great job encompassing Cate’s range—as victim, seer, hysteric and survivor—and contending with her physical ailments. DiMofte has the difficult task of coming in late and topping the high tension already in the room. He brings his intimidating physical size to bear along with a powerful sense of the man’s violence and despair. He’s the Frankenstein monster that our modern world has created, come home to roost in the heart of civilization, in Sarah Kane’s heart of darkness.