Sarah Kane’s Cleansed is a provocative, invasive and deeply discomforting piece of theatre, one that dazzles and disgusts in equal measure. Set in a laboratory facility within a university, love is dissected, mutilated and examined by the omnipresent figure of Tinker. So too are the lovers. This nameless institution tests physical and mental capacity to endure pain as individuals are tortured and their emotional attachment to others explored in brutal ways.

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.  

Reviews by Cal Kenny

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The Blurb

You love me so much why can’t you remember my name?

Tinker practises the art of atrocity, but even he isn’t immune from the need for love. Existing on the border between beauty and brutality, Cleansed imagines a world in which language, human relationships and the body itself are pared away to bare bone.

One of Britain’s most influential playwrights, Sarah Kane (1971 – 99) receives her National Theatre debut in an unflinching new production by Katie Mitchell.

Contains graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence.