Is a modern audience shock-proof? Blasted at the Lyric Hammersmith

Blasted

It’s exciting when a rarely performed play of theatrical legend comes to a mainstream theatre. It’s even more exciting when that play is Blasted, and the production is almost as uncompromising as we imagine Sarah Kane would have liked it to have be. We know this play for the depravity it displays, the complex violence of its emotional relationships, and the stomach-churning feeling it provokes in us – that is, at least when we read it.

Sean Holmes’ production is dramatic and grippingly brutal, yet I wasn’t as disgusted by it as I expected to be. Of course the images we’re confronted with can never be pleasant, but I was less disgusted by what I actually saw than by what I imagined I was going to see. A play lots of us are familiar with through reading, Blasted has its own life in our heads. It’s often said of plays that you ‘need to see it to really understand it’, but I’m not sure this is the case with Blasted. Yes, some parts fell into place whilst watching it, but my reaction was nowhere near as strong as I’d expected it to be.
Entering the theatre I was on edge, both eager to see the production and wishing for it to be already over, or to be tame. In anticipation of what I knew to be its most gut-wrenching moments, I had a hand at the ready to shield my eyes. This waiting, though, was worse than what I actually saw. When you know that Ian’s about to eat a dead baby, it’s hard not to squirm; when you see him chew the leg of a doll however, it’s hard to be as disgusted as you feel you ought.
I don’t feel that this reaction was a fault of the production, but perhaps it’s a sign of the limitations of in-yer-face theatre, or indeed theatre more generally. Although the blood and rape and bombs may be profoundly shocking for a first time audience, they’re less so when we know what we’re waiting for. How far can we really be shocked by what we already know? And how far can we be persuaded by representations of the real? The moments of the night that were, in a way, the most shocking, were the verbal descriptions of atrocities: of the massacres the Soldier has almost willingly been involved with. Maybe the unknown, and our imagination, will always have more influence over us than a part-shocking image.
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