A performance of another Sarah Kane masterpiece, 4:48 Psychosis, in 2018. twitter.com/newdiorama

Content Note: This article contains detailed discussion of physical violence.

I would often arrive to my third period French class sweaty, shaking, fake blood in my hair. Having stumbled to the other end of the school from my drama lesson, the correct usage of the subjunctive was the last thing on my mind. Instead, I was thinking about Cleansed, Sarah Kane’s notoriously impossible to stage, horrifically violent, triumphant, magnificent masterpiece.

My drama teacher was – how shall I say this? – an eccentric man, and when it came to choosing the text for our A-Level Drama exam, he knew exactly what he wanted us to do. Cleansed was first staged in 1998 and it tells a ‘story’ –although the narrative is often illogical and incoherent – in which a sadistic doctor named Tinker tries to systematically test the staying power of love by subjecting his ‘patients’ to increasingly bizarre and graphic acts of sexual violence, psychological torture and dismemberment – acts so horrible that they are hard to speak about, let alone stage. I would like you to bear in mind that, as A-Level Drama students, our theatrical experiences at this point mainly extended to much tamer works like The 39 Steps and Daisy Pulls it Off. That we were apprehensive was an understatement.

“To repeatedly place yourself in a position of such pain and humiliation, to allow people to watch you at your weakest and worst, was genuinely exhausting.”

As per our exam board’s wishes, our chosen extract had to be staged in the style of a practitioner, and Artaud made the most sense (for once). He emphasised the failure of language to convey the reality of human suffering, making his chaotic approach perfect for a play in which a character’s tongue is cut out and his hands and feet are cut off, until he is completely unable to communicate. The scene that we adapted was the second of these incidents – Tinker cutting this character, Carl’s, hands off. I was Carl. My classmate Heather was Tinker. Unlike her character, Heather was incredibly sweet, and a real darling. For months Heather and I rehearsed the same scene over and over again – her clipping a dog collar and leash around my neck, yanking me across our filthy drama classroom floor, and grinding my hands into an electric fan, me screaming a very particular, agonised scream that my drama teacher always complimented. After a while, it no longer felt like acting. To repeatedly place yourself in a position of such pain and humiliation, to allow people to watch you at your weakest and worst, was genuinely exhausting.

Rehearsals for a 2020 production of another Sarah Kane, Crave.twitter.com/chichesterFT

This may sound like pretentious actor-y nonsense, but there were times when I dreaded going to drama class because I knew what was going to happen to me. I did it for the art, naturally, but it was a lot to go through on a Monday morning before a history test or doing your homework. The rest of the class went to see Katie Mitchell’s famously brutal production of the play at the National Theatre Archives, but I, citing too much revision, couldn’t face it. Seeing the stills had caused a sharp knot in my stomach. By that point, I felt Carl’s pain so intensely, so acutely, that I could not bear to watch it in front of me. Playing Carl made me terribly aware of my own vulnerability, of the fact that I have a body, which is fragile and small and easily broken. The screaming was my own, and I couldn’t hear it come out of someone else’s tongueless mouth.

“The screaming was my own, and I couldn’t hear it come out of someone else’s tongueless mouth.”

It also changed things between me and Heather. We were always friends, but having to act out this awful dynamic everyday affected our relationship. She began to scare me a little. If she looked at me for too long, or came too close to me too quickly, I would flinch, avert my eyes. It was only subtle, but sometimes she would get this look in her eye, and I would become really frightened of her. Perhaps I had to be for the performance to be convincing, but even so, I was shocked that Cleansed was having such a real-world effect on us. Heather and I were very careful to frequently check in on one another, to make sure we were still friends. We were, but the shift between us, though indistinct, stayed. The months wore on, and another classmate promised to buy me a new collar for the exam, because the original was looking a little worse for wear. My drama teacher let us borrow the truly grim, industrial fan which he kept under his desk. Heather dry cleaned her white coat.

We were never able to take our exam. As rehearsals began to intensify, so did the Coronavirus pandemic. We were amassing props, mixing the fake blood and pulling out the hospital gowns whilst posters warning about COVID-19 cases began to spring up around the school. Our rehearsals took on an air of reckless abandon. The usual chaos – the dancing, singing, screaming needed to create the Dionysian frenzy AQA were looking for – was also a way for us to hold onto our youth, the last moments of our schooldays: the last gasp before everything was gone.


Mountain View

The magic of primary school theatre

There was so much bitterness in having our exams cancelled, for my drama class especially. We had thrown ourselves whole-heartedly into rehearsals for staging Cleansed, so much so that even now I can’t hear the noise of a fan without cringing. It felt like all of that had been for nothing. But the truth is that we had experiences in that class which we will never have again. As an English student, I have to believe in the power of words, but Cleansed made me see that some things are truly beyond language. And I’m still scared of Heather.