Sarah Kane’s work is that of true experiment in writing. It’s always fascinating when a writer’s work becomes so quickly enshrined that examination of what makes it so is almost forgotten. But the right production will also make an audience interrogate the text as much as the performance. And this does, it highlights everything that is brilliant, challenging, frustrating and beautiful about the words and the form Kane chose to use.
It also becomes almost ‘accepted’ that we accept the brilliance of the writing without interrogating why. But each new production offers new insights into that. In this version the creative team serve Kane’s work well by balancing frenetic energy with letting the words speak for themselves. The company is young- they are made up of Director (Samantha Jones) and Producer (Yasmin Williams) from The Other Room’s Professional Pathways programme, and students from Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama as part of their showcase. While this demonstrates the talent emerging in Wales, and is credit to both The Other Room and RWCMD for supporting young artists in this way, the work is indistinguishable from other productions in its quality. And the young performers understanding and performance of Kane’s challenging and complex work demonstrates a maturity and sophistication.
Zoe Brennan & Mimi Donaldson create a set that brings out the desolation and isolation of the piece. Their set, a traverse black-grey void running the length of The Other Room, brings to the space an abstract purgatory feel. The small details- piles of earth, a tap the minimal props, a rope, a bucket add to that feeling. The audience feels trapped in this in-between state, an indeterminate location, with the characters. Their costume choices also evoke a sense of no particular time or place. They don’t seem to even be from the same time or place. All of this creates a setting that is unsettling, disorienting and a match for Kane’s words, and the world of the piece.
The four actors also rise to the challenge of a piece that would intimidate even the far more experienced. Emily John has incredible control as a performer, and her emotions appeared to be almost on light-switch control. She achieved all this without ever being hard or closed off but instead an incredibly open, engaged performer who was so in control of the performance down to the smallest detail. Johnna Dias-Watson offers a balanced, calm and more introverted performance. But one that is fascinating to watch, as there seems to be so much going on beneath the surface. Amid the others she is calm in the chaos, but no less interesting or emotive. There is a focused detail to her performance that makes her fascinating to watch. Benjamin McCann is thoroughly enigmatic and seems to continually fluctuate in his character. McCann has an incredible physicality to his performance that draws the audience in and helps create some of Jones’ on-stage imagery beautifully. Again he is thoroughly engaging to watch. He seems to have an easy, laid back manner that veers into the unnerving when the lines demand, but as an actor demonstrates incredible focus. Callum Howells offers a comic thread through the piece. But like all good comedy there’s a real heart, and an often-heart-breaking element to this. He is affable and sweet, he looks the audience squarely in the eye- as they all do at intervals- and they want to be drawn to him. His comedy veers from sweet to unnerving as Kane’s words unravel with him. And it’s an intelligent actor that balances those two so well.
The direction from Samantha Jones doesn’t over complicate the piece. She also doesn’t try and force meaning on it, more lets the text do the work. And that’s a key skill with trying to wrangle this piece. The power is in the words, and she lets her actors find the power in the words without worrying too much about making them make sense. While there are moments that make no sense to an audience therefore, that’s ok, because you can see in the actor’s faces, their gestures and communication with each other, that every single word and every single silence means something to them. It’s an odd thing, for an audience, this piece where you feel like you’re peering in on a world you don’t entirely understand and follow. None of the piece is linear -or is it? None of it is a narrative- or is it? And yet watching the performances, you know that for each of these performers they are living and understanding every beat and how they connect to one another.
There is an element both of musical quartets, and a kind of ‘song cycle’ feel to Crave. Of hearing snapshots, getting part of a story before moving onto another. Never sure if everything is fully interconnected but feeling the ties between the moments. It’s easy to ask ‘what is it about’ and come up with ten different answers. And all of them would be correct. Love, seems the most obvious. Lust also. But both of many kinds and shades. Grief certainly, as a thread that runs across all of Kane’s work. Pain also, runs like a vein through the piece, and threatens to overwhelm it at times. All of these moments happen individually and at once. That idea of looking in, of not understanding all the gaps in between. Seems to be an apt exploration of the analysis of Love Kane is presenting. Because at its heart that’s all, and indeed everything that Crave is about.
Crave is known as perhaps the less ‘shocking’ of Kane’s work. It’s fitting then it acts here as a bookended or parallel, to Blasted, which opened The Other Room back in 2015. Less shocking, less confrontational than Blasted, Crave offers something else- a quietly heart wrenching analysis of love and loss and everything in between.
No writing on it is complete without reference to the long monologue that this time falls to Howells- who delivers it exquisitely. In it the character goes through a list of ‘Ands’
‘and go for a meal and not mind when you eat my food
and meet you at Rudy’s and talk about the day
and type your letters and carry your boxes
and laugh at your paranoia
and give you tapes you don’t listen to
and watch great films and watch terrible films..’
A microcosm of the play it weaves a story without a story. It offers a snapshot of falling in love, in lust, in love again and in and out of it. Somehow in a list of non-sequiters and a collage of imagery, captures the essence of falling in love. It is beautiful, achingly so. It ends with the following:
communicate some of the overwhelming
I have for you.
And it’s a speech that reaches out to the heart of you. It’s a speech that touches parts long forgotten in your mind, churning up memories of the good and the bad. More importantly it’s a speech that will bounce around for days to come, deep inside, reminding, stirring, reflecting. It’s also, despite the context in the play-open to interpretation as that it- that takes on a life of its own. Each audience member takes that speech as their own, keeps it and holds onto it. Days later it’s giving out hope, hope that speech will resonate again.
That’s the reason Kane’s plays are still reincarnated- and it is a reincarnation every time, because the words are so abstract in their form. Yes, they are fuelled by Beckett in their abstract, difficult world. Yes, there are echoes of T. S Eliot and shreds of other literary ghosts. But ultimately Kane’s words are a stark canvass for new artists to weave their meaning on, and new audiences to take their own from every time. And the company at The Other Room and RWCMD have achieved that. Because Kane’s words are once again echoing inside audiences again.
Until 11th May
The Other Room (Cardiff)
Directed by Samantha Jones
Produced by Yasmin Williams
Assistant Director – Nerida Bradley
Stage Manager – Millie McElhinney
Deputy Stage Manager – Emily Behague
Set & Costume Design -Zoe Brennan & Mimi Donaldson
Lighting Design – Ryan Joseph Stafford
Sound Design – Josh Bowles
C – Emily John
M – Johnna Dias-Watson
B – Benjamin McCann
A – Callum Howells