A show that promises to engage with questions around desire through the medium of violenceLeah Mclaine with permission for Varsity

What is there to say about Cleansed that hasn’t already been said?

It depends on who you ask. If you asked a Cambridge student, there’s a fair chance they won’t even know what you’re talking about. Some may have a hazy recollection… “something about… violence? Aren’t there like, tongues cut off, and crazy stage directions, and sex in it?”. But if you asked the 17 students who have been working on a production of the play since the start of Michaelmas, myself included, we’d probably wax lyrical about love, desire, pain and tenderness.

“We’d probably wax lyrical about love, desire, pain and tenderness”

That may sound inexplicable given the play on paper. I found it hard at first to see any light in all the heaviness of the play. But, through our director Eoin McCaul’s meticulous and detailed rehearsal process, I’ve been able to uncover all the beauty that lies at the heart of the play.

From our first read-through at the start of term, I could tell that the process was going to be different. That was echoed by my fellow cast members sharing their excitement at tackling something which stood apart from our Cambridge theatre experiences, of taking a risk and doing something which scared us. That’s not to say the process has been scary: there’s a luxury to doing a Week 8 play, in that you’re afforded the time to grow as an ensemble, to mine the text for meaning, to uncover detail. From the beginning of our rehearsal process, these three things have remained core to the experience.

After all, we began the process in an untypical way. Instead of a script read-through where everyone played their assigned parts, we sat in a circle and went around it, each saying a successive line. We didn’t dive into rehearsals straight away, but started with some crash courses on different methods of performance: Laban and his eight efforts of movement, and Hagan and her nine questions; spending time “wringing” and “floating” with our bodies, practicing how these actions might look isolated in the fingers, or the torso. We’ve done detailed work on our characters, using the script as a jumping off point to colour their inner and outer worlds. That work has helped us immensely in rehearsals – what I’ve loved so much has been the sense of openness and excavation. Piecing together a scene with Eoin doesn’t feel like a rush to find blocking, but rather an inquisitive process where we try different minute changes and completely out-of-the-box exercises in a search for meaning. What, for example, could we learn about a character by doing improvisations in public? What rhythms can we find by lifting dialogue out of the world of the play and try it while racing around the grounds of Queens, a character chasing another who’s trying to avoid them?

“A play that’s really all about characters who ‘reach for love’”

What, then, actually happens in Cleansed? The best entry-point I can give is that it takes place in an institution, in an unnamed time and place, and follows the individuals who people that institution. Eoin tells me he sees it as a play that’s really all about characters who “reach for love”, that “each character is just working within their own conception of what they know love to be or what they think love can be.” What kind of love is that? “Some of it is quite innocent, some experienced. Other love is quite jaded, and sometimes it is selfish, or it’s selfless”.

And what about those crazy stage directions – amputations, flowers growing from the ground? For Eoin, he thinks Sarah Kane (the playwright) was “in on it”, so he approaches the stage directions with an awareness of the limitations of theatre – “you can have magic, but [it] will always have to be kind of fake, working within the context of the suspension of disbelief” so cardinal to theatre.

“I get a real thrill at the seemingly endless possibilities”

College theatre is a different beast to the ADC-machine. It affords you a longer timeline, and more freedom, as well as the opportunity to tackle such a challenging play. But it’s also got its pitfalls – it requires tenacity and conviction to push forward and cross hurdles independently. I consider myself lucky to have had Eoin steering our ship – and now all that’s left is for audiences to meet us. It’s hard to see from the inside of the play what audiences might take away, but speaking to Eoin for this article, I get a real thrill at the seemingly endless possibilities of their experience when they come.


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The challenge of the play extends to its audience. It’s “tight” and “economical”: an hour and fifteen minutes. And it demands a kind of attention that Eoin hopes will be helped by its slot on the last days of term – he wants people to “consider” the play, to “sit with it”. After eight weeks of work, I think that’s all any of us  hoped for – people ready to take that journey with us, to see what resonates, and to reflect on their response.