It’s hard to watch. Yet here we are, watching. Sarah Kane’s Cleansed is a play of splayed ribs, the heart beneath exposed and still twitching. First performed at the Royal Court in 1998, this is only its third major UK revival – Sean Holmes directed a version in 2005 for the Oxford Stage Company – and it also marks Katie Mitchell’s return to the National.
Her production is simultaneously repellent and compelling. Cleansed takes place in a kind of institution. Characters are frequently strapped to gurneys, bound and unbound, their bodies wracked with spasms as they are broken and violated. An authority figure, Tinker, doles out punishments. Pain is his weapon. Other figures, clad in balaclavas, patrol the space like Victorian mourners, encroaching then retreating.
Mitchell’s production is strikingly precise. There’s very little dialogue in Kane’s play; it’s like a canvas, the spaces between words waiting to be filled. For cast and audience alike it’s also an exercise in endurance. Michelle Terry plays Grace, a woman consumed with longing for her dead brother, to the point she tries to become him. As an actor, she is capable of the most articulate stillness while Matthew Tennyson brings the same delicacy and vulnerability to his role that he brought to Robert Holman’s A Breakfast of Eels. Both performances are exposing and physically demanding, and a scene in which he is force-fed chocolate is one of the most upsetting moments in a production not exactly short of them.
Some of the choreography – the criss-crossing of the space, the use of slow motion – is reminiscent of Mitchell’s previous work, as is the elegant decay of the design. Alex Eames’ set, with its wire mesh and peeling blue paintwork, looks like a photo of an abandoned Chernobyl hospital, and yet, richly lit by Jack Knowles and warmed by pretty flames, it’s almost too attractive. It forces you to consider the strange frame that theatre places around things, of where you’re sitting and what you’re watching.
Like Blasted, it was written while the former Yugoslavia was imploding, and that sense of splitting is there in the play, but it also captures a lot of current thought about bodies and what it means too inhabit them, to be trapped in them, to transition.
For all the appalling things we witness, the shredding of extremities, the various injections and insertions – you quickly begin to wince in anticipation when someone lays out plastic sheeting – sometimes this serves to push the audience away; it’s the small moments, the vulnerability of an ankle, two bodies moving in unison, that end up resonating the most.
Though there are flowers, and even birdsong, there’s not much hope to be found in Mitchell’s distressing, dream-like rendering of Kane’s merging of internal and external hells. But there is love, of a kind.