It is tough watching, wince-inducing, but simultaneously impactful and acted beautifully without exception.
However, Cleansed is also a feat of endurance for the audience. Accused of presenting violence gratuitously (with audience members fainting during the previews), this performance runs the risk of undermining its theatrical impact by exhausting the spectator with its unremitting depiction of gory suffering. Sarah Kane’s text includes rape, dismemberment and murder, and Katie Mitchell’s unflinching direction has not shied away from its presentation, utilising a realistic approach which has actors writhing and screaming in agony. It is tough watching, wince-inducing, but simultaneously impactful and acted beautifully without exception. Particular note must be made of Michelle Terry, whose vulnerable and believable performance as Grace was outstanding.
Such relentlessness is reflected by the constant movement of those on stage, lending the performance a nightmarish quality. Time and space blur and fade away; chilling figures in black balaclavas are consistently in motion, criss-crossing the stage, bearing surgical equipment and carrying bloody bodies under the orders of the chilling Tinker (Tom Mothersdale). Discomfort is heightened further by the superb sound design. The theatrical experience is intensified by noises of choking, muffled cries, blood pumping, the muted fall of bombs and – ironically the most threatening – upbeat music. For those audience members who were too squeamish to watch (and there were many), the violence was still inescapable due to the invasive soundscape so effectively created by Melanie Wilson, which sucks spectators into the action.
Cleansed is, beneath the gore, a searing exploration of love and human connection at its most basic, as individuals are reduced to their primal state. Kane’s play ends with a suggestion of redemption; love will, and has, overcome. This lighter touch might seem incongruous after such an onslaught of Orwellian horror. When hope is glimpsed, it is fleeting and evasive, like water through fingers. While salvation may be an uneasy promise in this piece of theatre, the intensity of the performance and uncompromising nature of Katie Mitchell’s direction makes Cleansed a stunning, but at times unpleasant watch.