Outside Pi Theatre’s workspace in Strathcona, it’s a picture-perfect spring day: blue sky, sunlight glinting off the dewy grass, early promise. It’s incongruous with what’s happening inside, where director Richard Wolfe is leading rehearsals for Blasted, a work so notorious for its violent subject matter that this is, according to Wolfe, only Canada’s second professional English-language production in the play’s 20-year history.
Blasted is not for the weak of stomach, and there is plenty to be shocked by in the late playwright Sarah Kane’s script, including rape, cannibalism, an eye-gouging, and other torture. When it debuted in London in 1995, the Daily Mail’s Jack Tinker called it a “disgusting feast of filth”. The outraged masses ensured its overnight infamy, but it’s Kane’s complex writing that ensured its continued relevance—and that it would eventually attract the attention of Wolfe, who is also Pi Theatre’s artistic director.
“The DNA of the company is to do uncompromising work—unapologetic work that has both an emotional charge and an intellectual charge,” Wolfe says. “We thought that Blasted had that in a big way.”
Blasted marks Pi’s 30th anniversary, and it certainly meets the company’s mandate of “uncompromising and unapologetic”. Kane started writing it when she was an undergrad, deeply disturbed and influenced by the Bosnian War and reports of rape camps in the battle zone. Blasted unfolds over five scenes, depicting the increasingly awful interactions between a vile, sleazy journalist, a young, naive woman, and a battle-scarred soldier. It’s set in a fancy hotel room in Leeds, but midway it’s revealed that there’s suddenly a war zone outside. The violence inside the hotel room escalates until the production’s shattering, humane conclusion.
“It was very unlikely that the Bosnian War was going to arrive on the doorstep of a Leeds, England, home, but today that’s exactly what we’re told will happen in our current, seemingly endless, war,” Wolfe says. “That the war will literally be on our doorstep. That threat is justifying our involvement overseas, our military involvement. We’re one of only two NATO countries bombing Syria right now. In many ways, this show is a cautionary tale about war, about the real impact and effects of the war and the violence. It’s not clean, it’s not sterile.”
Blasted isn’t just shock value, either. It isn’t a violent play, but rather a play about violence.
“Sarah Kane hated Quentin Tarantino,” Wolfe says. “She’s not interested in cartoon violence. Her plays have a real moral purpose and explore deep themes, and help us realize that, no, we’re not going crazy. We’re being told a bunch of things. Art often does that: it doesn’t always give us answers, but it helps to clarify situations. I think this helps in that regard. It shows how violence is linked: small-scale violence and the institutionalized violence of war really exist on the same continuum—the ideas of power and the need to act out power.”
It’s not a “splatterfest”, Wolfe says, and after all of the horrific things the characters do to each other and to other people, the show actually ends on a compassionate note. Kane herself once said all her plays were love stories. Blasted, despite its reputation, is no different.
“Compassion is a choice,” Wolfe says. “We either dehumanize people so that we can justify any number of things.…or we see them as people and we have empathy and compassion. That’s the question of this [play]. It’s not giving us a road map on how to be better people.”
Pi Theatre’s Blasted runs from Friday (April 10) to April 25 at Performance Works.