If we’ve learned anything from director Will Detlefsen, it’s that Sarah Kane’s Blasted should be done very, very well or not at all. This is a play that hits us so many times over the head that we should leave the theater weak kneed and punch drunk. But when, early on, Ian (Jason de Beer) rapes an unconscious Cate (Marié Botha) while holding a gun to her head, he conspicuously leaves his pants on and unzipped. And while we should be thinking, “He isn’t really doing that,” we are instead thinking, “He isn’t really doing that.” Blasted demands a lot from its actors, but more importantly it requires a director who is willing to make those demands. It lives and dies based on these moments—Cate’s rape is really just a overture to the kind of depravity we will witness—so when they begin in failure the whole work sags. Even an average production of Blasted, it seems, will play as juvenile if it can’t play as shocking; when we are not frozen in disbelief, Kane’s devastating depiction of humanity seems nasty simply for the purpose of being nasty, like the work of an angry fourteen-year-old who writes about rape simply to offend those who are nervous around the word rape.
For the uninitiated, Blasted begins in a dingy hotel room where Ian and Cate resume an aborted affair. He is a journalist who reports trashy stories about murderers and pedophiles, a chain smoker and gin drinker whose lungs and liver could collapse at any moment. She is a woman-child, a vegetarian who can say with a straight face that she doesn’t approve of killing. Their relationship is alternately tender and vicious. In a quiet moment, Ian tells her, “You make me feel safe.” In a more typical one, he makes her bleed while going down on her. This is all interrupted by a series of explosions, an unexplained military coup that introduces a Soldier (Logan George) into the room. When he’s not raping Ian, he’s telling a story about how his girl’s eyes were eaten by an enemy soldier—“Poor fucking bastard,” he says, and indeed, Blasted challenges the distinction between perpetrator and victim, and questions the very notion of calling someone a survivor. The line most frequently associated with this play comes from Roland Barthes: “Being in love was like being in Auschwitz,” which is about right.
Written during the peak of the Bosnian genocide, Blasted can leave its viewers with a wide range of reactions, but one of them should not be the feeling that they have witnessed something immature and masturbatory. It’s really a shame that this is the case, because there really is quite a bit of talent onstage. Though Mr. de Beer never quite achieves the menace and infantilism Ian requires, Ms. Botha effectively navigates Cate’s transition from playful but damaged naiveté to cold survivalism—her giddy, childlike laughter proves a chilling contrast to her later appearance, unanimated, blood streaming down her leg and a fat sausage in her hand. Mr. George, too, is phenomenal, and his indictment of Western complacency transcends the production in which he appears. But ultimately, to offer a poor Blasted as Mr. Detlesfen has done is to ruin, for much of the audience, a first viewing of one of the greatest contemporary dramas.