Venue: Old Fitzroy Theatre (Woolloomooloo NSW), Jun 9 – 25, 2022
Playwright: Sarah Kane
Director: Dino Dimitriades
Cast: Danny Ball, Stephen Madsen, Tommy Misa, Jack Richardson, Charles Purcell, Fetu Taku, Mây Trần
Images by Robert Catto
It is uncertain where the action takes place, but in Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, we see a man named Tinker torturing several individuals, in a manner that implies somewhere utterly and devastatingly fascistic. Tinker is presented as all powerful, able to commit the most heinous of acts without being reprehended, or perhaps his horrific atrocities are indeed sanctioned, by an authority that remains unidentified. Tinker’s victims display no violent and criminal tendencies, only forms of sexual and gender expression that deviate from what some of us might call, the heteronormative.
It is a ghastly thing to witness, this incessant agony being inflicted on characters, in a theatrical presentation obsessed with pain. In truth, moments between the brutality, are filled with depictions of a loving nature, but the suffering is never distant enough, for anything sweet or nice, to sufficiently emerge. We know with hindsight, that Cleansed offers a window into the psyche of a tormented soul. Originally created less than a year before playwright Kane’s suicide, it gives us access to a darkness rarely seen, in any of our communal settings.
Direction by Dino Dimitriadis explores that space of terror, without mitigation. The intensity with which Kane’s writing is transposed on this occasion, is uncompromising, and quite shocking in its effect. The concept of body horror, figures prominently in the staging, to communicate with veracity, not only the level of anguish experienced by those devoid of hope, but also to depict the psychological consequences of homophobia and transphobia, in some of our everyday existences.
Dimitriadis appropriately manufactures for us, a sense of escalating dread and revulsion, refusing to give in to any need for reprieve. There is no room for politeness, when matters are truly urgent. The audience is left to its own devices, to access mental fortitude wherever it can, in order to get to the end of Cleansed, should they choose to stay. Exiting prematurely, in this case, is also an understandable and valid cause of action.
Sound design by Benjamin Pierpoint is relied upon to strike fear into our hearts, and its efficacy cannot be understated. If your worst nightmare can be represented in an audio recording, Pierpoint has accomplished it here. Jeremy Allen’s set design is black, hard and stony, to convey the cruelty that our species is capable of inflicting on one another. Lights by Benjamin Brockman and Morgan Moroney are similarly icy, offering only the most explicit perspective of the inhumanity being exposed. Costumes by Connor Milton are aesthetically understated, but the way injury and decapitation is represented, is cleverly achieved, and suitably gruesome.
Actor Danny Ball is marvellous as Tinker, deadpan but terrifying, full of ambiguity in his portrayal of pure evil. The quietness of Ball’s performance disallows us to undermine the severity of his character’s barbaric deeds; it is the absence of dramatics in Tinker’s cruelty that makes us see it exactly for what it is. Mây Trần as Grace, delivers some of the most affecting emotional authenticity one could hope to see in the flesh. To be able to muster such a visceral and accurate presence for a character at the very depths of despair, is evidence of an artist of the highest calibre at work. The unforgettable Stephen Madsen shakes us to the core, with spine-chilling screams and a ravaged physicality that tragically deteriorates over time. It is a splendid cast of seven incendiary types, determined to say something devastating, in an extremely powerful way.
Cleansed may not be about a universal experience, but the harrowing nature of its story is contingent on our ability to all feel the same pain. Tinker knows how to inflict pain, because he too knows what it is to suffer. There is a dissonance that always exist perhaps, in our ability to do unto others what we wish not to have done to ourselves. It may seem that a constant in being human, involves a need to perceive difference. To be able to think of some as more deserving than others, allows for power to manifest. To be able to think of some as inferior, allows for abuse to take place. Tinker is no different from the rest; understanding how he gets to exercise such power, is the key to dismantling so many of our ills.