Wilbury Group’s Blasted Asks, “What If?”

Blasted_Cook_Kelly“Personally, I think it is a shocking play, but only in the sense that falling down the stairs is shocking — it’s painful and makes you aware of your own fragility, but one doesn’t tend to be morally outraged about falling down the stairs.” – Sarah Kane

Any production of Sarah Kane’s epically difficult Blasted is going to generate press and word of mouth simply because of what it is – a harrowing journey into abuse, violence, war, madness and death. And that’s just the first scene. Much has been written about Kane herself and her tragic, short-lived career. Blasted has been deemed “unproducible” by some and “unwatchable” by many. However, as Director and Wilbury Group Founding Artistic Director, Josh Short, indicates in the program, atrocity onstage is almost as old as theater itself. (This reviewer attended a production of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus in London a few years back and at least a half a dozen audience members fainted, the stage was covered in blood halfway through and a sprightly usher cheerily intoned, “Oh, that’s nothing. They’ll be killing the babies after the interval!”)

Kane, motivated by the particularly brutal intensity of the Bosnian conflict, turned what started out as a commentary on abusive relationships into a larger treatise on the numbing effect of distance and the even more disturbing reality of the numbness of proximity. The ultra-violence of A Clockwork Orange challenged the viewer to stop being offended by staged images and question why events in Southeast Asia, or even events in their own towns, didn’t elicit such outrage. The answer, of course, is that you can’t refuse to buy tickets to a war and you can’t storm out in protest if you do. Clockwork’s Alex may be forced to view enough violence to finally force some kind of empathy, but we have the luxury of turning off the TV, putting down the paper and saying, “Not me and not here.” But what of events closer to home? What of the friend who is regularly abused by a spouse or lover? What of ourselves? To  Kane’s original point, those who are enmeshed in an abusive relationship are often so trauma bonded to the abusive individual and the situation that protest is too often weighed against what a victim might perceive as a loss of love and acceptance. Words and psychological abuse can and do spiral quickly into physical violence and once violence is accepted as normal, that is when the true horror begins. When rape is an acceptable weapon of war, why wouldn’t torture and even cannibalism become commonplace? Once a line is crossed, all subsequent lines become less meaningful and protest falls on deaf ears. What Kane explores is that rapid descent into brutality, what happens when “an eye for an eye” is taken to its sickening and inevitable conclusion and how it might be possible for basic human compassion to exist in even the darkest of places.


Short’s Director’s Note indicates that there might be a ray of hope buried somewhere beneath the boards and it’s worth reading beforehand as it is hard to imagine anyone walking into such a play as Blasted with no warning of what they are about to experience. There is sense of foreboding enough in the setting, which is a unique found space in the balcony of the Southside Cultural Center. Monica Shinn’s scenic design turns what is normally an almost abandoned alcove of the building into a narrow, curved playing space that is both luxury hotel and nightmare. There is no speech at the top of the show to tell us how to leave in the event of an emergency and the visible exit is part of the set, tantalizing those who wonder if the floor and/or the ceiling will hold. They do, of course, and this sense of menace and decay perfectly contrasts with the plush bedding, burgundy curtains and light piano that wafts through an otherwise deadly quiet.

Once the door opens we’re thrust into the world of Ian and Cate. It is Leeds, Britain, and Ian, a tabloid reporter with nebulous ties to darker interests, has rented an upscale room as a getaway for him and Cate, his younger, somewhat troubled inamorata. We’re never quite privy to the full details of the relationship, but Cate should not be here. Ian professes his feelings often, but launches into racist, bigoted diatribes that Cate clearly disfavors. He verbally, mentally and physically abuses Cate who withdraws under pressure into a childlike state with accompanying blackouts and hysteria. Cate threatens to leave, but only does so after interminable abuse and only to return again later after the horrors of the world outside prove to be even worse than the microcosm of that world found inside the luxury suite. An uninvited soldier, an explosion and an escalation of events unspeakable to us, but increasingly and horrifyingly commonplace for these characters, ensues and never lets up.

Some of the metaphors here may be crude and brutal, but so is life and Short has skillfully directed a wonderful cast into not only making us uncomfortable to the extreme but also allowing us to catch brief glimpses of humanity in all of them. Alexander Cook, a Boston-based actor, gives an unflinching performance as the twisted Ian, whose degradation of Cate is returned tenfold once his world is literally torn apart. Cook and an equally astounding Amber Kelly establish a relationship onstage that is both gritty and practiced, with a pacing that is near perfect in its dynamics. Short is not afraid to allow silence, but never does that silence seem empty or expectant. In one scene, we find Cate at lights up, cowering under the covers, apparently having been raped by Ian. The failing health of Ian, due to his reckless lifestyle, is a constant refrain, one which, as much as we despise Ian, can at least ring up the most basic note of human sympathy. Ian collapses at the foot of the bed in what almost appears to be a heart attack, allowing Cate to rise up and simply watch her tormentor suffer. No calls to emergency services, no attempt to help, simply a stare of such utter hatred and pent up anger that we read the entire history of Cate in that measured, silent moment.

There are several such moments in Blasted, such as Jo-an Peralta’s Soldier, after storming Ian’s room and commandeering the room service tray, devouring the entire contents of two plates. This moment takes the better space of at least a minute. But, rather than the moment being simply Peralta greedily chewing food, we get a sense of the Soldier’s desperate triumph. He eats while never diverting his gaze from the trapped Ian, a look of insane ecstasy on his face while he keeps a rifle trained on his new hostage the entire time. Jason Eckenroth, whose lighting had been limited at this point to a few practical lamps on the set, slowly builds light through the hotel windows during this entire sequence, a sunrise, perhaps, that parallels Ian’s dawning realization that he is no longer the captor, no longer in control and that everything is about to change.

Everything does, indeed, change and the audience is just as trapped as Ian. By the end, Ian’s life is in Cate’s hands and she finally does manage some compassion for her former tormentor. Ian has always loved Cate in his own twisted way and when he warns her not to stand behind him as he attempts to blow his brains out, that is his depraved way of caring. It’s easy to say that there is no one in Blasted with whom we can equate ourselves, but that may be the very point. We are safe in the knowledge that this is a play, a staged show of violence and depravity that we consume and then discuss in the lobby over drinks. There are real people all over the world, from Syria to Providence, that actually do have lives that resemble those of Cate, Ian and the Soldier. We hope never to be them, but when challenged with the notion of actually speaking out against such horror, we all too often retreat into a stance of detachment. All three characters take turns asking what the other would do if confronted with certain horrific choices. The initial response, much like our own, is, “But that wouldn’t (or couldn’t) happen.” But the reply is always a simple, yet profoundly true upping of the ante: “Yes, but what if?” Blasted allows us to explore some of the “what if” and Wilbury Group has again facilitated some questions that we had hoped never to have to answer.

The Wilbury Group presents Sarah Kane’s Blasted March 13th – April 5th at the SouthSide Cultural Center, 393 Broad Street, Providence. Extreme content, not suitable for children. For tickets and more information, visit