Friday marked ten years to the day that Sarah Kane committed suicide in the bathroom of her King’s College hospital room. To commemorate the decade since her passing, BBC Radio 1 aired Blasted: The Life and Times of Sarah Kane, a short documentary by the University of London’s Dan Rebellato about her work, its impact and its legacy in contemporary British theatre, which is available for streaming until the 26th of February. One of the points that it raised was that the posthumous mythologising of Kane as a morbid, tortured Queen of Darkness was to sell her short; to miss the implicit humanity and humour in both her character and her short body of works. Her friend Vincent O’Connel, in addressing what he calls the “authorised version” of Kane, stated: “As well as listening to Joy Division, she’d be equally likely to be dancing to George Michael or playing Miles Davis tunes on her trumpet. She liked dark humour, for sure, but she’d also laugh herself silly at Laurel Hardy or Fawlty Towers.” Critics were all too quick, particularly in the UK, to attribute Kane’s use of theatrical violence to the emergence and popularity of the in-yer-face playwrights: Ravenhill, McDonagh, Butterworth and so forth, which is debatable in itself. But as that movement has largely dissipated, it is interesting, and timely, to think how Kane’s influence and impact on theatre writing is now felt; whether a new generation of writers will consider, or reject, her approaches to the craft. Angus Cerini’s Wretch is certainly a case in study, and a uniquely Australian one at that.
There are many parallels between Wretch and Kane’s, in particular, later work: an intense lyricism, a fluid manipulation of space and time, an experimental use of form, a dark, dry wit. But the strongest similarity is that which Kane is so rarely remembered for – an exploration of humanity and our rawest, darkest desires as human beings. When you unravel its layers and yarns of cheap sex and violence, Wretch is a play about love and how it destroys, rebuilds and reshapes our lives. It is potent, poetic, confrontational, unforgiving and unrelenting. Even if, as it weaves between time and characters, monologues and dialogues, truths and lies, you find that you aren’t always following, you are never given the option to just sit back and watch. Wretch is not simply about understanding a plot and character motivations – indeed, trying to do so might actually be secondary and prove difficult , near impossible in such a non-linear piece. More importantly, I believe, Wretch is about a theatrical experience; one that moves, shakes and affects you and gets to the very heart of theatre itself.
Susie Dee and Angus Cerini, working together to direct the piece from Cerini’s script, play a mother and son during visiting hours at a prison. The mother is suffering cancer, having already had a mastectomy with another pending, while her son is doing time for his part in an assault which left a man paraplegic. The play opens with the two of them sitting in the off-white cell, watching the audience in silence before slowly, chillingly, turning to face each other. From this simple gesture, and in the empty threats and hilariously sick exchanges that follow, we quickly learn that this is not your typical Mother and Son couple of the theatre – this is not going to be an easy journey of reconciliation and rediscovery. Their brief moment of connection is, actually, hardly revisited; the two never cross their half of the stage and never physically interact, as if they were in their own cells, their own worlds rather than the same. And yet despite their hostilities and the spiralling stories which emerge, it becomes apparent that it is the same, complex and disturbing love keeping them separated that is keeping them there at all.
Dee and Cerini perform the dysfunctional dynamic with both vigour and a cool restraint. They never let the dark subject matter reduce them to histrionics, nor their characters’ low socioeconomic standing become a point of condescension; we never laugh at, or write these two off based on where they’ve come from or the way they speak. Conversely, Cerini’s attempt the capture the syntax, starkness and colloquialisms of Australian suburbia comes off as both natural and stylised, enhancing the play’s gritty poetry with a voice so unique to our stages. Dee and Cerini draw our attention to the subtle inflections in tone, the gut-wrenching bellows, the way in which they hold their hands or casually wipe their nose with the sleeve of their tracksuit top – on the small stage even the slightest movements become big for the audience. Both actors, in particular Cerini, have fascinating discipline over their bodies and voices. But perhaps most importantly, they really nail the humour, the derision and the underlying affection, no matter how deeply buried or distorted it may be, between mother and son. Their comfort with, and trust in, each other as actors is apparent and assuring. Despite their positioning in the middle of a bare set, Cerini and Dee fill manage to fill La Mama with tension, intrigue and pure, raw sweat.
And yet I am hesitant to refer to Wretch as a two-hander. Cerini’s script, which was co-winner of the 2007 Patrick White Playwright’s Award, and his performance alongside Dee are completely captivating and immersive. But to call this a two-hander, I feel, would be to downplay and diminish the efforts of the rest of the creative team. This production of Wretch is so memorable because all of the elements have come together to create something genuinely unique. Marg Horwell’s set design of off-white panels, which on closer inspection are dotted with black, effectively encloses the La Mama space and helps exacerbate the claustrophobia of the script, highlighting the closeness and simultaneous distance of the characters. In a brilliant touch, some of the panels are replaced with fluorescent lights which, muted behind sheets of opaque plastic, not only help Richard Vabre create a wealth of subtle backlighting effects but also allude to kitchen / bathroom lights and the domestic roots of the mother and son relationship. The very way in which those lights are concealed further acts as a metaphor for the difficulties, distance and anxieties in their relationship: so little seems to be getting through.
This thread is picked up on by Kelly Ryall, whose sound design perhaps represents some of his best work to date. The soft blips and bleeps that run through Wretch are evocative of transmission sounds; fax machines, dial tones, morse code. And yet despite getting louder, building to moments where the sounds layer and intersect, they still never directly correspond. The tones keep bleeping but they never answer each other; they sit in the air of the space and powerfully counterbalance, and at times mimic, the power of Cerini’s poetry. When, towards the end of the performance, the tones are replaced by eerie bird calls and cries, they act as an unexpected and chilling reflection of the atmosphere onstage. The mood is followed through by Vabre’s exceptional lighting design; a blend of bright states, slivers of light and booming moments of electric, fluorescent flashing (which echoed the taking of photographs in Luke Mullins’ 2007 Autobiography of Red).
Looking back to the parallels with Sarah Kane, I do not think that any influence is just apparent in the textual similarities to her work. Rather, Wretch, like the theatre of Kane and Artaud before her, is an intense and experiential exercise in subverting and reconceptualising what constitutes the theatre event. It is not just about the script or the actors, but the careful arrangement and balancing of the other elements of theatre around them. Wretch is theatre that twists your stomach, your heart and your soul – it is hard to shake off, like a dream you can neither completely remember nor forget. Intelligent, heartbreaking, grotesquely beautiful, Wretch reminds you, when the elements successfully come together, of the force that theatre truly wields.
Wretch runs at La Mama, Carlton until March 8th. Bookings at http://www.lamama.com.au