David Greig remembers his friend and fellow playwright Sarah Kane (3 Feb 1971 – 20 Feb 1999)
3rd February 2021
We’re left with five complete plays and one short film. Those five plays are rather unique in that, it’s not exactly that it’s a flawless body of work, that wouldn’t be right, she was too young. But each one of them is a punch – and it’s a punch in a single direction. To use a less aggressive phrase, it is an attempt at something – it is a genuine whole-hearted run at trying to understand something that she largely succeeds at doing. And in order to succeed, she has to break form to do it. This is the journey of all writers of all theatres at all times. But many are sufficiently able to create a career without running at 100 miles an hour in the thing you’re trying to understand.
You can have a very interesting successful play without saying ‘In order to truly understand this I have to smash the form’. I would start with saying that because Sarah was so genuine in her desire to understand the challenges she sets herself, whether that was violence, sexual desire, gender, mental distress, all of these things, she did not let norms or forms stand in her way. She said: ‘I’m going to try and get this’. And that’s quite personal in that I don’t think she was necessarily trying to understand in order to give her message to the world. She personally herself wished to understand why people could be violent to eachother, what psychosis was and what relationship it had to the truth…
We mustn’t forget that the world was pretty fucking mental in 1989,1990, 1991. My play Europe has been staged a number of times in the intervening years and people say ‘David, it’s so timely, it’s so prescient’. I was just writing what was happening at the time. In the run-up to Blasted, I remember she and I would be on the phone quite a lot because both of us were very emotionally invested in the Yugoslavian war and the horror of it. And we would say ‘Have you read this journalist, or seen this book?’. We would talk about it on the phone. I read about Yugoslavian history. I was fascinated in it. I remember the night the Srebrenica massacre occurred. We were on the phone together and she said: “Right now they’re killing people”. I’m sitting in the hall like you used to do, and I could detect that it just meant more to her than it did to me. And I feel bad about that. I personally was appalled and horrified by it, but I could feel it was just under her skin. She just felt it. Of course, that was the year her play Blasted premiered. Blasted is in a sense a direct response to Yugoslavia.
It’s saying: there is one world in which you’re just sitting in hotel rooms, talking about football. But underneath that world, we are a breath away from violence. And she relates the sexual violence of the journalist – Ian – she draws that connection. But the key insight she had, and this is something I experienced in Syria, is that there is a world in which everything is normal then within a month a fucking great shell smashes a hotel and you’re in a one to one fight for survival for food with a soldier.
So what I’m trying to say is the thing that makes her for all time is not that she was prescient, not that she had magical powers, but that she was with total integrity exploring her question. And there were a lot of amazing questions at that time. And she also as a particular human being, she had her own questions about gender, sexuality, mental distress. She felt it.
When I talked to people in Syria, and the Middle East, about the play Blasted they don’t think it’s abstract. I remember Elyse Dodgson arranged a workshop on Syria. There were 10 Lebanese writers. They had had their war 10-15 years ago, whereas the Syrian writers were in the middle of their war. There was a fascinating discussion as to what is the artistic way you respond to war. And the one thing that came up again and again is that you respond by absurdism. Because the experience of war is that it does not make sense – it is about sitting in a hotel room, thinking you’re going to report on a football match and then a shell comes through. There’s something that Sarah got.
Someone said that Sarah had a thinner skin that everyone else. What I mean by that is she was a very talented writer and full of the things you need as a good writer – integrity, mischief, talent, inspiration, ability to steal, all of those things – but she also just felt it. To be truthful, I think the reason why her plays remain incredibly popular, particularly with younger people, is because they can smell that it’s real, this is not an academic exercise, this is not theory…. “I’m trying deeply to understand something”.
About the reception to Blasted… I was one of those who wrote a letter to the Guardian saying ‘this is really embarrassing, you’ve got this wrong’. But I think there was something in it… I have some sympathy for the reviewers. They thought Sarah was playing a game. Because there is a game in which, every few years an enfant terrible comes along, who does something on stage. We can think of the examples, but it could be sexual or violent or whatever. There was a whole bunch of shockers that came after. I think they thought ‘this teenager is trying to shock us and it’s in that tradition’. And I think they also thought: ‘this is quite fun, this is alright, if we give this shocker reviews that make headlines, the Royal Court will sell tickets’. I don’t think they imagined the playwright caring because in a way for 9 out of 10 other playwrights that would be a great result. I remember talking to her: ‘I said your career is exploding because of this’. And again, she just was not perceiving things in the same way that I perceived things and again that’s because she meant it. And I don’t think that’s something we always expect of our artists.
The critic Dan Rebellato says her plays are about love, that is an interesting and truthful angle. Increasingly they are about love as each play goes on. But what I would say about Sarah is that you can’t do all of those things and create a play that a thousand people will sit and enjoy easily and then go and have dinner afterwards, and tell their friends to go and buy a ticket for that. I think Sarah’s work sits in a particular category – a vital and important one for theatre – but it’s sort out of the game of theatre. There is a game of theatre too, that’s where the critics were living, quite understandably. As an artistic director right now, half my body is in integrity, truth, the art, and half is: can we get people through the door? Will it get newspaper coverage?
We began writing plays when there wasn’t really such a thing as new writing – to some degree it’s an invented category. I remember rather trying to resist it at the time. The Arts Council had this category for new writing and then they had this category called Ayckbourn. I was saying ‘we’re playwrights, some plays attract thousands, some attract 50 people’. The Royal Court was at the heart of it. The idea of new writing somehow draws you into saying ‘there are these people called writers, you have to draw out their little coughs of expression and some of them if you’re lucky they might speak to people’. I do think a bit of that ideology didn’t sit well with Sarah. She was not a ‘new writer’, she was reading Genet, Artaud, and Beckett – she was also reading Prozac Nation and listening to Radiohead. She was creating her own form.
I think it’s a form that comes from the way she managed interiority as a dramatic possibility. Ultimately that reaches its high point in Crave, and in 4.48 Psychosis where she essentially dramatises voices that are in a person’s head – they echo as if they’re voices in society but they’re voices in space – wrestling with eachother, wrestling with ideas. Some people like those plays, like Crave was her hit, because in a way it’s easiest to understand, whereas Cleansed and Blasted and Phaedra’s Love those plays had absolutely bold theatrical images. Sarah said the reason why she had unstageable images in her plays was ‘whatever they do they’re going to have to do something interesting’.
When Stephen Daldry came along he wasn’t really a new writing person. I think he brought an interesting angle, and Sarah was the first moment that burst into life. He was interested in the world, in form, and art, and theatre. He saw it for what it was which was in the tradition of Artaud and Genet and taboo art. Sarah was never ‘nurtured’. I think even Vicky Featherstone would admit that she never ‘nurtured’ Sarah, she gave her space, put her on, found the best actors. She looked after Sarah but I don’t think she ever saw Sarah as someone who would improve if you got them to look after structure better, or something like that.
This is the thing: when I wrote the foreword to her plays, I was desperate that people didn’t see her as a neurotic, because at the time, ‘she was a young woman, she was a bit off kilter’.. I don’t think anyone thinks that now. So that fight is won. I feel safer to say that what I think she was incredibly powerful and good at is finding the double metaphor – she sees the metaphor of war and how that feels to a person experiencing sexual abuse in a modern English city, or a person whose love is thwarted, or a person who cannot remove their depression. What she brilliantly does is she makes each a metaphor of the other. So she brilliantly means: we can understand war by understanding it through the personal but we can also understand the personal by seeing the ways in which it’s like war, in both she responds with the absurd, the strange, she smashes the form open because you can’t do it normal, because it’s about saying ‘there is nothing normal’…
She was never trying to teach you. The last thing any Sarah Kane play would try and do is tell you to vote Labour, not because she didn’t want you to vote Labour but because she didn’t feel that was theatre’s place. It was theatre’s place to ask: why do we hurt, why do we kill, why do we need things, how far would we go for love, why does love feel like an internal war..? These were the questions she was interested in.
Playwrights who believe that there are solutions in the world, and I’m one of those – I think that are things that would be good – we have a tendency to write a play that will have a message, or warn you, or imply something, whereas I think Sarah’s quest was to understand. Because it was such a personal quest, she leaves the space for you to have your own answer. She would never have thought that liberal democracy is going to be enough. She’d never have thought: it’s all going to be OK because Obama or Hillary has been elected – or Joe Biden or even Jeremy Corbyn, had she lived to see that strange moment. I don’t see her as a figure of the far-left, or anything. I think she just didn’t think that was theatre’s place, that wasn’t where she was.