We had a front row seat at the gross-out play at the National Theatre that’s freaking everyone out

People have been fainting in the wings


The National Theatre isn’t fucking around. Their new adaption of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed, is a full-spectrum exploration of love and sadism, featuring explicit scenes of murder, rape and torture. Last week’s previews reportedly saw five people faint and forty walk out. In an interview with BBC Radio 4, director Katie Mitchell said the cast had experienced nightmares as a result of the material: “We all dream huge nightmares, everyone has very strange nightmares, where very extreme events takes place.”

I went along to the matinee this afternoon to see whether it would be a genuinely moving experience or a particularly bourgeoise form of torture porn.

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There’s something quite lol about people who go to the theatre, and the theatre world in general. Waiting for the curtain to rise and the bloodbath to begin, I listened to a couple of RP, bearded luvvies ask questions including, “is Gus coming to the alumni party?” and, “didn’t you see them in The Talented Mr Ripley?” Part of me hoped the oncoming river of gore would make them faint or throw up or something.

Cleansed features a gay couple, a young woman and a dancer who are pushed to their physical and mental limits by a sadistic doctor. Obviously the plot is designed to make some broad, existential points about love and life. Human beings are fragile, fallible. All of us will watch people taken away in the night without protest, as long as we’re feel ourselves to be safe. Those we love will betray us eventually. Nothing you don’t know already, really.

I looked around at the audience, which was mainly cool grandparents, people in their 30s who pay for Guardian masterclasses and a smattering of students. I wondered whether they’d be receptive to this message.

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In the first 45 minutes of the play a man takes a needle in the eye, a pike up the rectum and has his hands fed into a shredder. The oppressive soundtrack is a mixture of Burial-like ambient noise, random industrial sounds and tortured string instruments being played under water. A sunflower pops out of the stage floor like a triffid. There’s more cock and balls than you’ll see on HBO. There’s masturbating, there’s an tortured stripper writhing dementedly in an illuminated box.

It’s exhausting, not profound. A couple of people leave. The young boy behind me, eyes larger than dustbin lids, looks as if his rents have caught him watching some pretty outré German pornography. A lot of people are looking the other way, putting hands over their eyes.

Others are trying to laugh – and I’ve always wondered this – why do people laugh at things that aren’t funny in the theatre? Something about the theatre, not the material, forces the laughter out of them.

Before the end, one of the characters shoots a lot of rats. A man has his feet fed into a mangler. You hear his toes break: he would scream but his tongue has already been ripped out, red and wet and fleshy. A guy in a dress hangs himself, after a particularly nasty scene where he’s force-fed a Cadbury’s Milk Tray. Dialogue highlights include: “Fuck me, fuck me, fuck me… I love you” and “I love your cock inside me, Digger.” The stripper with the bag on her head gets shot in the face.

Maybe I’m a massive, massive philistine, but I’m pretty sure anyone an English degree and a tough upbringing could write this stuff. “It’s totally fucking pointless,” says the main character, as it all ends. Yeah, I thought, you’re right.