Sarah Kane on Woyzeck at the Gate, Notting Hill; Big Issue, Nov 1997

5th November 1997

Sarah Kane’s notoriety over ‘Blasted’ eclipsed her talent as a playwright. Dominic Cavendish meets the woman behind the infamy. Big Issue, November 1997

If she is known for anything, Sarah Kane is known for not doing interviews and for having written a play called Blasted. These two facts are not entirely unrelated. When the Royal Court staged her first full-length work, at the beginning of 1995, she became, overnight, the most notorious playwright in the country.

The tabloids had a field-day, banner-posting the horrors the Essex-born girl unfurled in a Leeds hotel-room: middle-aged journalist masturbates, rapes his younger lover, is himself raped by a soldier and then left, having had his eyes chewed out, with only a dead baby for sustenance. Even the more contemplative national critics went into a state of shock. The net result: enough column inches at the age of 23 to last a lifetime and most of them shedding precious little on her talent.

“It’s only in retrospect that people have really talked about Blasted. At the time, all they did was catalogue the contents, which I was surprised and disappointed by.” Considering that she talks to the press so rarely, Kane is an assured interviewee, softly spoken in a way that sits at odds with the bald dialogue and brutal action of her writing, her severe black clobber and cropped blonde hair. Caught during the final stages of rehearsing Woyzeck, the second in the Buchner trilogy season at the Gate Theatre, she reiterates her conviction that if you show violence on stage in a heightened dramatic form you can force an audience to see beyond the act to the impulse behind it.

By her blood-soaked standards, this fragmented piece – written by a dying, hounded 23-year-old intellectual revolutionary 160 years ago – is a relatively tame affair: it ends with the humble hero wading into a pond having stabbed his lover to death in a fit of rage.

But Kane has not opted for the stress of directing it as a pleasant break from her highly visceral muse. Woyzeck is more than just one of her favourite plays. Belatedly recognised a century later as having cleared a path for radical modern theatre, it is central to understanding what she hopes to achieve in her own work.

“What’s so extraordinary about it is that he isolates moments of real extremity one after the other in such a way that you are never looking at the real thing,” she explains. “What you get thrown back on is the idea, which is always more disturbing. It is the first play ever written about someone who has absolutely nothing, not even articulacy.

“It’s still way ahead of our time, let alone its own. It makes huge demands on the audience, but that’s not to say it’s ‘difficult’. If I go and see a Noel Coward play I don’t have a clue what’s going on – it means nothing to me.”

Like her last classical text project at the Gate, Phaedra’s Love – in which she stood Seneca’s tragedy on its head and turned Hippolytus, the virgin warrior, into a junk-food addicted wanker – Kane’s Woyzeck connects the excesses of our time with those of the past. With each work she does, it becomes harder to dismiss her taste for the nadirs of human experience as attention-seeking.

Her follow-up to Blasted, Cleansed, is modelled on Woyzeck, but like Blasted filters present-day England through the cataclysm of Yugoslavia. “I’m not interested in sloganising,” she says. “No one would listen to me. But what you can do is put people through an intense experience. Maybe in a small way, from that, you can change things.”

Woyzeck ran at the Gate, Notting Hill Nov, 1997.

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Dominic Cavendish - Theatre Critic & Journalist

Dominic Cavendish is the lead theatre critic for The Daily Telegraph. He is the founding editor of the audio archive Theatrevoice

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