Review: Cleansed (National Theatre, London)

What’s it all about?

Your guess is as good as mine, and I’ve actually seen it. Essentially over the course of an hour and a half we watch a man named Tinker slowly torture a group of strangers who are all confined in an asylum-like environment. A gay couple, Carl and Rod: one who won’t admit his love for the other, resulting in Carl having his hands and feet removed and Rod having his throat slit. A sister, Grace, mourning her dead brother Graham, who she loved and wanted to have a sexual relationship with. A young man, Robin, who is desperate to love Grace and ultimately falls when he doesn’t get what he wants. And finally Tinker, who lets himself love the dancing peep show girl, ultimately to his own downfall.

The words…

Sarah Kane’s play fundamentally doesn’t have a logical narrative, but rather a series of snapshots that play out as an extended metaphor; a group of people who are all tortured at the hands of their love. Does it make sense? Not really, no. Although in Katie Mitchell’s production, there’s at least some continuity in the environment that keeps it hooked together. But don’t get me wrong, there are some very strong moments in the play, and often these are the moments not littered with violence and sex (although on both accounts I found this production actually far more tame than expected): Robin’s torture as he is forced to eat an entire box of chocolates and the dance between Grace and Graham are two of those occasions.

The talent…

This can’t be an easy play to perform, both in terms of the content itself but in that it came across as quite a physically demanding production. Michelle Terry as Grace spends the majority of the 1 hour 40 minute production on stage, walking around observing the action. But whether it’s electrocution, a hanging or dancing, the cast put their all into every stage direction. Stand-out performers for me were the above-mentioned Michelle Terry, Natalie Klamar as the Woman who had the air of mystery needed to draw in Tinker, and Tom Mothersdale as Tinker who was menacing without being the stereotypical bad guy. The cast in this production are also joined by a group of men in black masks who perform all of Tinker’s actions and control the ‘hospital’s’ inhabitants. It’s a good addition by Katie Mitchell, making it feel all the more menacing – this is not just one man and his toys doing the torture, it’s an organised operation of horror.

The design…

Alex Eales’ set design is without doubt striking. Cracked walls, broken tiles and loose wiring are key elements in making it feel like a broken environment. It’s a make-shift hospital that implies Tinker and his men in black have set up shop in an abandoned building; an illegal torture chamber filled with a group of people who have been captured and detained against their will. The set brings a sense of realism that’s needed to ground the play and keep it from being like a completely dreamlike reality. In one respect, the design helps – see the speakers blasting out music that comes across as asylum-like torture – but in others it limits it, including the bells between scenes, which break the action somewhat tediously.

The special mention…

This time it goes to Matthew Tennyson as Robin. In a play of quite frankly unlikeable characters, he is a breath of fresh air. There’s an innocence to his portrayal that makes him incredibly likeable, and that ultimately means his is the only death that you really care about at the end of the production.

Verdict: ★★★☆☆

As I overheard one of the box office staff say, “this is a very good production of play that’s not everyone’s cup of tea.” I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it, and stylistically it had some great moments, but despite reading it prior and now seeing it performed, I’ve not got a clue what it’s about. Why three stars then? Because with great direction and some very nice performances, if the meaning behind the text had been clearer, I’m sure I’d have loved it.

Cleansed is playing in the Dorfman auditorium at National Theatre until 5th May. Tickets are available at the National Theatre website here.

And the view…

My first time in the Doorman Theatre, and what a nice little venue it is. My seat in the Gallery in row R was very clear. A perfect view without any interruption, and nice not to have anyone in a row behind. The seat was also comfortable and there was more than enough legroom.

Gallery, Row R, Seat 43
Gallery, Row R, Seat 43
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