Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Cleansed at the National, or, Extremes of Violence, Nudity and Sex Will Take You Only So Far

Note: This is a review of the final Preview performance on Monday 22nd February 2016. The Press Night is this evening.

As a general rule with my cultural activities I am willing to see most things once, though I admit I do exclude immersive theatre, other things which advertise audience participation in advance, and horror films. I mention this because even when booking for Cleansed I was hesitent, and reading reports of earlier previews I nearly abandoned the whole thing. In the end my completionist streak won out, I went, and survived. However, I never need to see this play again, and I am not convinced of its merits.

First, the positives. The cast are very strong and deserve enormous credit for what must be an exhausting experience, both physically and emotionally. I should also have thought it was unpleasant but I assume performers must measure such things in such a context differently otherwise I can't see how you would cope with these roles. Michelle Terry, on stage almost throughout, deserves particular praise.

I've seen only one Katie Mitchell directed show before. There's a high level of realism here (in the context of the piece) with all the brutal torture apparatus and so forth visibly deployed. The more bloody scenes are gory (I closed my eyes on a number of occasions), elsewhere though I wasn't quite so sure if the effect was as intended – the electric shock scene for example does feel staged, but it may also be that, by that point, I had become rather distanced from the whole exercise for reasons we'll come on to. Lighting (Jack Knowles), Music (Paul Clark) and Movement (Joseph Alford) were all strong, and I'd be interested to see what this team would do with a work I thought more of.

For the real problem is what seems to me the ultimate thinness of the play. The central argument, so far as I could see, is that humanity is a brutish, very nasty race, the members of which treat one another appallingly, any interludes of more human feeling being short and pretty meaningless with renewed violence just outside the doors. The treatment of women is particularly dreadful. Depicting this, as Cleansed does, with such extremes of exposure and violence (sexual and otherwise) has a certain effect. That the repetition is distancing (at least for me) may also be part of the point. But there did seem to me to be significant weaknesses with it all. We never know enough about these people as individuals, we never sufficiently understand why any of them are behaving as they are. That sometimes people are just terrible in their treatment of others may be argued, that a whole group of people will simply be so with no triggers at all I find a much less convincing contention. The sister and brother pairing of Grace (played by Terry) and Graham (Graham Butler) are partial exceptions to this rule, but the play doesn't follow through sufficiently here to offset the wider context. As an aside, the character of Grace also seems to have an autobiographical element to it, and the portrayal of extreme mental confusion and despair is probably part of the point but again I wanted more context and the absence of it distanced me. A further problematic distancing effect occurs because the play also creates a degree of doubt as to whether any of what we see is actually happening. Lastly, it is not possible to wholly escape the feeling that author or director or both are deliberately setting out to see how far they can go – that is that the extremes are an end (a provocation?) in themselves. To make someone faint (as apparently happened at earlier previews) or walk out is an achievement but, I would argue, a greater challenge, and one which if met makes for greater theatre, is to compel attention – to create awfulness from which one cannot look away. This evening fails, or quite possibly never intends, to attempt that, and is the slighter work for it.

Is Cleansed a modern classic? I am unconvinced. Do you need to see this play? It's not an avoid at all costs evening (unless you're of a nervous disposition), but it is a largely unpleasant one. I find it in the end a thin work and that, combined with the extremes, makes it a missable evening.

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