I went to see Cleansed and didn’t faint

The culture: ‘Cleansed’ by Sarah Kane, National Theatre Dorfman

The cheap seats: £20 high chair Circle seats (restricted side view but distance from the horror show was much appreciated)

Ok a quick disclaimer: I am a massive wimp, and while the reports of walkouts at the National’s new show didn’t bother me too much (the middle-aged, middle-class NT regulars are usually a bit oversensitive), the faintings made me a bit nervous.Especially because the horrific opening scene (and many after) involve needles and needles send me into peak squeamishness. But you can’t call yourself a theatre fan if you give up on Sarah Kane after one bad experience (4.48 Psychosis) in a stuffy basement at the Edinburgh Fringe. And so I bravely made my way to Cleansed, performed by an incredible cast (including Natalie Klamar, Matthew Tennyson, and Michelle Terry) and directed by the inimitable Katie Mitchell.

It was an intense evening. I can’t really write about it because I feel numb, like someone picked up one of the hypodermics from sinister ‘doctor’ Tinker and injected a heavy dose of adrenaline into my heart but followed it with plenty of anaesthetic. It was by far the best thing I’ve seen in the Dorfman, the theatre that previously brought us An Evening At the Talk House.

I can’t really write about it. Luckily Dan Rebellato has already done a sterling job. Instead, here’s a few things that I won’t be able to experience again in the same way, after being well and truly Cleansed:

  • Bare feet, at least for a bit. The whole play was full of the kind of gruesomeness that you feel like pin pricks in the soles and arches and tendons in your feet, ankles, toes and so all the bare feet onstage made me feel a bit nauseous.
  • Black umbrellas, carried ominously by Magritte-y characters with lilies and urns.
  • Blondie’s Picture This, or plastic sheeting, or cardboard hospital bowls, or hand sanitiser, or latex gloves.
  • Beautiful daffodils emerging at the start of spring, because beauty happening in a hopeless place is the most tragic of things.
  • Boxes of chocolate. I used to give up chocolate for Lent but never had the willpower to abstain all the way til Easter. One particularly, weirdly nasty scene in Cleansed (it was odd that it effected me so much, in a play where feet literally get shredded before our eyes), really put me off the sickly, sicky sick sweet stuff. Bleugh.

By the end my stomach had flipped at least thrice, my hairs were on end all over, my fingertips sweaty and hypersensitive. I haven’t really got it yet. It’s still a collection of haunting images, waiting to be stitched together, a gaping wound in a waiting room.


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