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In some ways director Katie Mitchell is playing it safe for her first production at the National Theatre since a falling-out with the previous regime a few years ago. She is not engaging in one of her now-trademark deconstructions of a classic work, building a stage experience piece by discrete piece; she is not even staging this piece in her standard crepuscular gloom, although once again she uses only the lighting of the environment shown on the stage, with no “stage lighting” as such. The choice of material, too, is in some ways low-risk: Sarah Kane’s plays seemed outrageous on their premieres as recently as the 1990s, but are now firmly ensconced as modern classics.
What Mitchell has done with Cleansed, however, is nothing short of magnificent. She anatomises both the horror and the hunger in Kane’s 1998 play, in which an unspecific “institution” tests the limits of its inmates’ emotional as well as bodily endurance. Kane’s imagery was extravagant: flowers bursting through the floor, no problem, but rats carrying off amputated body parts, more problematic.
Mitchell creates a brutal yet inescapable world in which there is quite enough torture and torment to make up for the occasional missing image. The institution is staffed by faceless men, their heads simply black spheroids, who trundle equipment and victims on and off and belabour them in between. They are all but mute; when one speaks, his voice is electronically fluked down in pitch. Graham, the ghost of an earlier victim, speaks in normal range but is given a bass-baritone echo.
Grace, Graham’s sister, enters the institution in search of reminders of him and gradually metamorphoses into him. She is kept almost permanently onstage by Mitchell, as if bearing witness to the all-pervasive impossibility of seeing our desire for contact meaningfully realised, or at least only at a devastating price. Michelle Terry, always a compelling actor, is shockingly vulnerable as Grace, as naked psychologically as she is physically.
Mitchell even finds music more resonant and disquieting than that specified by Kane, from a child’s rendition of Blondie’s “Picture This” to a track by 1970s American electropunks Suicide. It is almost a step too far given Kane’s own death by suicide in 1999, but it is also one more element in a vista of degradation that is, however faintly, shot through with hope. I cannot imagine a more powerful production of this powerful play.