Tungsten Tang with permission for Varsity

Approaching the ambitious task of putting on a performance of Kane’s gruesome and unsettling Cleansed with confidence, this student cast, directed by Eoin McCaul, pulled it off spectacularly, creating a gripping re-enactment of the play that left the audience unable to look away.

This production of Cleansed was distinctly different to the many other shows offered up by the Cambridge theatre scene – not only did it work with a text that is strikingly unnerving in every possible aspect, but the cast and production team handled movement, lighting, and sound deftly to create a multi-sensory, shocking spectacle for the audience. Remaining faithful to Kane’s text, they powerfully demonstrated how sex is weaponised to torture the residents of the institution.

“It made Carl’s physical and emotional destruction salient to the audience”

Forming one of the most memorable relationships of the play, Carl and Rod (performed by Irisa Kwok and Rosalind Wippell) presented an incredibly heart-warming image of love. Their playful interaction, despite living in a sanitorium, demonstrated the depth of the bond between the two characters, with their love for each other still evident even when its weaponised in an attempt to torture them apart from one another.

In fact, Kwok’s performance throughout the play was unforgettable, especially when Carl is whipped by Tinker. The cracking of the whips was strikingly portrayed, with Tinker hitting the back wall of the stage with incredible force and creating an echoing, distressing cracking sound. Perfectly synchronised with Kwok’s screams of pain and torment, it made Carl’s physical and emotional destruction salient to the audience, perfectly encapsulating the mental anguish and physical suffering that is written into his character.

Exercising his directorial freedom, McCaul adapts Kane’s script to provide a narrator, playing the part of the Voices and also speaking the play’s stage directions in the corner of the stage, facilitated by a microphone and a desk lamp to illuminate the script. Although this is certainly an unusual inclusion, Dawes’ vocal performance as the narrator/Voices was undeniably an asset to the show. Providing an extra layer of intimacy onstage, this also creates an intriguing distance between the cast and the audience, as the residents appear to be watched not only by Tinker but also by each other and the narrator, all of whom remain onstage throughout the play.

“McCaul and his cast do well to maintain the shocking and unsettling atmosphere characteristic of Cleansed”

Dramaturgically, the use of a camera to project the drama onstage in real time was one of the highlights of the show; the projection over a backdrop of a curtain of rope was particularly effective, creating a partially fragmented image that paralleled the poetic fragmentation of the writing itself.

However, as with many plays that present such difficult themes as Cleansed, there is a clear tension between the written play and its performance, and the directorial team must ensure that the innovative aspect of the theatre does not rupture the carefully composed atmosphere of discomfort. Unfortunately, McCaul’s team succumbed to breaking this atmosphere in one scene, when Tinker (Lovell-Jones) was shown ripping lengths of paper out of a notebook, symbolising a box of chocolates, and crumpling up each strip to be thrown in the direction of Robin (Zalicka). As each piece landed on the floor, Robin retrieved it, shoving it into his mouth and chewing it with contempt before viciously spitting it back onto the floor. Despite the paper forming a clever alternative to the logistical mess of cleaning up regurgitated chocolate from the floor before the next scene, this performance was painfully comical, leaving the audience awkwardly stifling their laughter as twenty-four balls of damp paper are ejected from the resident’s mouth, drawing an unfortunate parallel between Robin and Roald Dahl’s Bruce Bogtrotter.


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Similarly, at the end of the play, Dawes read out the stage directions of Tinker and the Woman making love to each other, juxtaposing the intimacy of this description with both characters’ stillness on stage as they stare at each other unmoving. Although far less laughter-provoking than Robin’s chocolate regurgitation, the spoken stage directions spanned at least 20 seconds, and feel a few seconds too long for the audience to treat it entirely solemnly. However, its important to note that, in a play filled with nudity and explicit sexual acts, McCaul and his cast did well to maintain the shocking and unsettling atmosphere characteristic of Cleansed, while ensuring they didn’t find themselves on the receiving end of some sternly worded emails from the College or theatre management.

At the end of this performance, my overwhelming feeling was one of awe and satisfaction – famously, Kane’s work provides many technical and artistic challenges to stage successfully, but McCaul’s cast and crew pulled it off, leaving a legacy of a truly triumphant performance of Cleansed that will be hard to beat by future student casts.