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Director Jenny Sealey remarks that the disturbing yet poetic apocalypse of Sarah Kane’s breakthrough play “lent itself perfectly to the ‘Graeae aesthetic’ ”. Indeed, it accommodates the multi-vector approach of Britain’s foremost theatre company to work with people with a range of physical disabilities, and to explore issues of access and perception.
The cast of three – partially sighted Gerard McDermott, Jennifer-Jay Ellison whose neuropathy leaves her looking far frailer than her performance indicates, and David Toole, of whom more later – deliver not only their lines but many of Kane’s stage directions, to aid theatregoers with poor vision.
On a screen behind them, a further set of performers on video carry out some of the actions while also giving a sign-language interpretation; sometimes, the screen carries captions of both dialogue and actions. For those of us able to choose how we follow the play, it offers a rich and fascinating collage.
Yet tackling the same play in all these different ways does not, as you might think, create extra space for interpretation in performance; instead, it restricts it. There has to be some consensus between the various modes of presentation, so that if
a particular suggestion can be made through one medium only, it may not be employed because those taking other sensory routes through the play may miss out.
For example, there is a deeply unsettling moment when, as part of Kane’s nightmare of brutality and social disintegration, the soldier played by Toole anally rapes McDermott’s loathsome journalist. Toole, who was born without legs, opens one leg of his trousers and briefly appears to use his stump as a penis. This image is both deliberate and entirely in grim, powerful harmony with Kane’s vision. But it is a visual image, and without corresponding moments on the other “channels”, it is almost by the by.
There are too few such instances of throwing down the gauntlet to the audience. Indeed, the succession of violations, mutilations and deaths in these 80 minutes almost caused less disquiet than the relentless bigotry of McDermott’s character, at a time when the racist side of Britain as displayed on reality television has led to international diplomatic strain.
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