It has come to my attention that most current artistic media outlets are used primarily to switch off, disconnect, and disassociate from our lives. Television allows us to completely disengage from ourselves, comfortably happy to watch people on television, sitting down for an evening to watch ‘people just do nothing’.
Theatre, however, plays by a completely different rule book. Its nature as an active process, which demands an audience response, marks it apart from simply entertainment: it becomes discursive, and no one has a louder voice at the party than Sarah Kane and her perfectly branded ‘in-yer-face theatre’.
Since performing a Mark Ravenhill play in sixth form – a close friend of Kane’s and propagator of her work – I have essentially been in a snowballing relationship with Kane’s work. The context of her tortured inner life and death preceded my knowledge of her plays, of which there are unfortunately only five.
It is her plays rather than her life, however, which have permeated the fabric of Britain and the world’s collective consciousness. Although the works mostly hinge on scenes of intense violence and often gruesome sexual digressions, I can’t help but see an intensely sweet playwright with a delicate obsession with love, its redemptive power, and resilience of the human spirit.
Yes, the odd flecks of humour found in her plays are deeply macabre, and pain nearly always follows these brief interludes, but what comes out of each work is an intense preoccupation with humanity.
The violence almost acts to poke the audience with a stick, to make them witness a spectacle. Then, and only then, after the distance of leaving the theatre, can the strong emotions ignited by scenes of rape, beating, murder and hate crimes, finally come into focus and bring the audience closer to a realisation of their own connectedness with themselves and wider humanity.
To me, Kane grabs the audience, muscles them into a straitjacket, and rams an electrode into their protesting mouth, letting them convulse at the atrocities which unfold before them on stage. As Kane herself said in a very honest interview at the Gate, Notting Hill for the Big Issue in November 1999: “what I can do is put people through an intense experience. Maybe in a small way from that you can change things”. Her dark subject matter packs enough punch to shake the unwitting viewer from their position of comfort, in the same way as a close encounter with death will make you aware of your own fragility.
Her plays are raw, painful and often unclear about what is going on, but that’s part of the point. We, as spectators, must make our own conclusions, our own connections, using our own active intelligence.
Kane was never one to fully explain herself but, instead, she asks the audience to explain themselves.
Photo credit: Donald Tong