Review: Cleansed Didn't Make Us Walk Out, It Just Numbed Us

Cleansed, National Theatre ★★★☆☆

By Savannah Whaley Last edited 30 months ago
Review: Cleansed Didn't Make Us Walk Out, It Just Numbed Us Cleansed, National Theatre 3

Sarah Kane’s Cleansed is not for the faint-hearted. It is an unflinching exploration of love in the modern world, where emotional pain is literalised in acts of brutal violence.

Katie Mitchell’s production has, reportedly, caused members of the public to faint and lots of others to walk out. Many are focussing, as tends to happen with Kane’s work, on the scenes of torture and on Kane’s personal biography — she committed suicide at the age of 28. Concentrating on the blood and gore can lead you to miss the beauty and the romanticism of this play — and, unfortunately, Mitchell’s bleak rendition makes that beauty much harder to find.

The mood in the audience before the show started was tense; we were all bracing ourselves for pain. And Mitchell’s production certainly delivers it. Cleansed is set in a nightmarish ex-university, or perhaps prison, where Tinker (Tom Mothersdale) subjects the nonconformist inhabitants to acts of torture to prove, and punish them for, their love. The set is appropriately oppressive. The Dorfman stage feels cavernous and the damp-ridden walls and stained, broken windows of the prison-space loom over the performers, providing no relief from their suffering.

The performers deal well with the intensity of their roles, and some — Michelle Terry as Grace and Matthew Tennyson as Robin — stand out. Tennyson’s performance in particular is disarmingly understated, and highly engaging. The violence is incredibly realistic— too realistic even. But the moments of beauty — a sunflower bursting through the floor, the relief of the sound of rain outside, the blinding sunshine at the end of the play — are overshadowed by the torture, which removes all hope.

There are some profound and lasting moments in this production, but it is not a consuming theatrical experience. It numbs you to the cruelty, and the love, it presents, which is disappointing in a play that has the potential to do just the opposite.

Cleansed runs at the National Theatre until 5 May. Tickets £15-£35. Londonist saw this play on a complimentary ticket.

Last Updated 24 February 2016

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