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Killing Kane

Is there a more contradictory play than 4.48 Pyschosis by Sarah Kane? Firstly, the text isn't shaped remotely like a play - but infamously, like a poem (and sometimes curiously-placed numbers) without characters, or any other description - no clues for set or action. Secondly, the text's consciousness seems not to be suffering from psychosis at all (that is, schizoid or psychotic breakdown) but despair or depression.

Thirdly, the play ends on a positive note ("please open the curtains") but is usually played as a descent into darkness, not dawn (which temporally it is); it is always, of course, darkest before the dawn. And no "play" is darker - it seems to build over the edge defined by Plath, extending the tropes of Holocaust, to child sex abuse and the killing fields, by way of Foucault-like observations on the sinister implications of doctors and mental patients. Kane's own suicide confirmed her, at the start of the new millennium, as either over-the-top hoax, or genius of a new age.

In Europe especially, she set a new direction for theatres and directors in Germany, Poland, and beyond. Kane speaks their bleak, post-Adorno language. Eyewear saw the latest version at the Barbican, last night, brought over from Poland. Directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna, a wunderkind of sorts, Kane's last play is re-imagined, ten years after its debut, as a Lynchian dialogue of inner-selves, via the playwright's own lifestory.

This means the more dislocated aspects of the text are normalised into figures that are recognisable as little girl, old woman, sexy lesbian lover, and skinny bored boyfriend, as well as father-figure and doctor-figure. As such, there are three female and three male characters to interact with the Kane-character. This being Eastern European theatre, within ten minutes, two women are masturbating each other in half-peeled jeans, and by the end of the play, sixty minutes later, breasts are bared and smeared in blood. This, then, is Kane by way of Polanski. The set by Małgorzata Szczęśniak and lighting by Felice Ross are brilliantly cinematic - the lighting at times dance-club sexy, or lavatory alienating, green and remote, at times, as low as it gets, until we barely see Kane's character vanish.

The acting is uniformly intense, and the edits to the text - while perhaps a brutal scalpel - trim the more teenage poetic moments, and leave the sparer, Eliotan poetry intact. Kane was a bit pretentious (the Biblical allusions sound like gongs) but at times her humour is as grim as Pinter's. She was the punk next stage after Beckett, an inevitable "in-yer-face" voice, and it is razor-blade refreshing to hear her corrosively bleak rage deployed so imaginatively. Kane is dead. Long live Kane.


Blandine L. said…
About Kane, I recommend Graham Saunders's excellent Love me or Kill me (reviewed in French here: )

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With the death of the poetic genius John Ashbery, whose poems, translations, and criticism made him, to my mind, the most influential American poet since TS Eliot, 21st century poetry is moving into less certain territory.

Over the past few years, we have lost most of the truly great of our era: Edwin Morgan, Gunn, Hill, Heaney and Walcott, to name just five.  There are many more, of course. This is news too sad and deep to fathom this week.  I will write more perhaps later. 

I had a letter from Ashbery on my wall, and it inspired me daily.  He gave me advice for my PhD. He said kind things about a poetry book of mine.

He was a force for good serious play in poetry, and his appeal great. So many people I know and admire are at a loss this week because of his death. It is no consolation at present to think of the many thousands of living poets, just right now. But impressively, and even oddly, poetry itself seems to keep flowing.