A Love Affair with Sarah Kane
In the mid-1990s, a young playwright took London theater by storm, producing five intense, provocative, controversial plays before she committed suicide in 1999 aged just 28. Sarah Kane divided critics and audiences, works such as Blasted and Crave dropping like powder kegs on the a complacent theater world. By the mid-200s, she was the most produced new playwright in the world. She’s only received a handful of production in Philadelphia, but Svaha Theatre Collective is trying to change that. After producing Kane’s Crave in 2016, the group return to the Fringe Festival with two works, an adaptation of a Shakespeare work and Kane’s Phaedra’s Love. With charged with, this contemporary adaptation of the Greek play focuses the audience’s attention on the cruelty which underlies human relationships.
My first encounter with Sarah Kane was at a production of Phaedra’s Love during the early days of my undergraduate career at the University of Pittsburgh when I was still flirting with theater as a mere acquaintance. It was love at first slice . . . I mean sight! I had never experienced anything like that before. I remember just sitting in my chair long after it had ended; short of breath, a little nauseous, nerves shot, and full to the brim with life. Which sounds cheesy, but I’m not sure how else to describe it. Sarah Kane’s plays have a way of stabbing you in the throat, gut, and groin until you are painfully, viscerally aware of your own humanity. It’s a hell of a trip and I’ve been chasing that feeling ever since.
As a director, I’m very interested in theater that generates a visceral response over a cerebral one. Although I believe theater should ask questions and produce possibilities, I think the danger of theater that is overly cerebral is that it begins to highlight and deepen divisions between opinions, political allegiances, and identity. Theater that attacks the senses and cuts through the surface to our very roots and what drives us as humans to survive can allow us to approach divisions from a place of understanding, empathy, and recognition.
Sarah Kane’s plays take the intimate and deeply personal experiences of loneliness, anxiety, need, and depression and elevates them to a place where these experiences translate on the stage both intimately and universally simultaneously. Her plays are extremely divisive and destructive, but their effect is communal. We witnessed it with our production of her play, Crave, in the 2016 Fringe Festival. After an hour of the characters tearing themselves apart until they ultimately destroyed themselves and each other, the reaction of the audience was to immediately reach out to the person next to them and connect, empathize. From the ashes, rises the possibility for love and understanding. I believe the primary theme running through all of her plays is love and its power to both destroy and create. “Only love can save me and love has destroyed me” (Crave).
In preparing to direct Phaedra’s Love this year, I came across a story from Sarah that informed one of her characters in the play that sums up my continued love and fascination with her work:
“Someone said to me this thing which ended up in Phaedra’s Love—because I was going on about how important it is to tell the truth and how depressing life is because nobody really does and you can’t have honest relationships. And they said, ‘but that’s because you’ve got your values wrong. You take honesty as an absolute. And it isn’t. Life is an absolute. And within that you accept that there is dishonesty. And if you can accept that you’d be fine.’ And I thought ‘that’s true.’ If I can accept that if not being completely honest doesn’t matter then I’d feel much better. But somehow I couldn’t and so Hippolytus can’t. And that’s what kills him in the end.”
I, too, struggle with accepting dishonesty in my own life and interactions. Sarah inspires me to be courageous enough in my own work and life as a theater artist to always be seeking honesty the way that she did. Honesty is something I believe we need now and maybe always. Svaha Theatre Collective hopes to bring you a little honesty with their production of Phaedra’s Love this Fringe no matter how painful it is.
What: Phaedra’s Love
When: September 13–22, 2018
Where: Mascher Space Cooperative, 155 Cecil B. Moore Avenue (Kensington)
Directed by Elise D’Avella