Zerbombt, Barbican Theatre, London

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For whatever reasons, Sarah Kane’s explosive debut play was the only one of her works that I had neither read nor seen prior to this visit of Thomas Ostermeier’s Berlin Schaubühne revival. I am glad to have made its acquaintance in this form: a disciplined, unsensationalised staging that lets both the horror and the poetry of Kane’s vision sing their competing strains.

Poetry? Yes, for despite the events depicted – including rape in various flavours, the eating of living eyeballs and a dead baby – and the blunt language in which the three characters speak, there is a perceptible striving in their dealings with each other and, after two uninterrupted hours of this atrocity, the mere offering of a bottle of gin can embody an amazing degree of spiritual grace.

Jan Pappelbaum’s set is at once opulent (I’ve never seen a Leeds hotel room, in which the play is supposedly set, remotely as luxurious) and stark, dressed entirely in monochrome, which increases the sense of devastation when lit for much of the second half in the whitest of light. This visual impact helps to overcome an aural deficit: I have enough German to understand Nils Tabert’s unadorned translation without problems, but from barely halfway back in the Barbican auditorium I could barely hear the actors, and perforce had to rely on the English surtitles. I understand the refusal to exaggerate words and gestures beyond the scale of their dramatic environment, but in some cases it cripples the communal event that is what theatre is about.

Kane’s original draft had consisted only of violent, paranoid reporter Ian’s manipulation and abuse of the much younger, more simple-minded Cate. She then expanded the piece as a response to reports at the time from the former Yugoslavia; now, a soldier bursts in from the civil war outside the hotel window, and similarly brutalises Ian while at the same time trying in his maddened way to make a personal connection.

Ostermeier’s production makes clear the correspondence between the private and the “public” violence. And the passage of a bare decade has shown that Kane’s description of Kafka as “a writer who everyone thought was purely imaginative, but in retrospect his works look like realism” applies equally to her. The world of Blasted is now indisputably our world: when Cate turns on the TV, there is no need to use a prepared montage of atrocity reports – the stories we hear are genuinely those of today. Were Kane still alive, she would assuredly not view her prescience with pride.

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