Great for its violence and unstintingly graphic depiction of trauma, British writer Sarah Kane’s 1998 play Cleansed has been described as “impossible to stage”. Full of nightmarishly grotesque incidents – torture, assault, drug use, and surgical procedures – it seems written to defy the creative imagination as much as it challenges audiences to sit through it; among the more elaborate of Kane’s stage directions requires a character’s severed feet to be carried offstage by rats. And some won’t sit through it: dozens of audience members left the auditorium when the play was revived in 2016 at the Dorfman in London. Several fainted.
None of that has deterred Sydney-based director Dino Dimitriadis, who is creating a new production of this seldom-seen “in-yer-face” drama at the Old Fitz Theatre in Woolloomooloo, Sydney. But how do you go about rehearsing an “impossible” play? In fact, why do it at all? And in a time when actors’ emotional and physical wellbeing is closely scrutinized, how do you look after those in Kane’s unplayable play, night after night?
“From our point of view, [Cleansed] is not about coming along for a horror show – it’s about experiencing the breadth of the experience of what it is to be human,” Dimitriadis says. “I want the audience to know we’re trying to create a meaningful experience for them. We’re not shying from its extremity, but I want the audience to see beyond that extremity and see Cleansed for what it is: a play about our need for love and connection.”
It’s 11 am on a Saturday. Two actors are about to rehearse an intimate love scene with only three stage directions: Carl kisses Rod, Carl makes love to Rod, They both come. It’s a gentle, tender set with a number of challenges to overcome – not least that in previous scenes, Carl (played by actor Stephen Madsen) has had parts of his body destroyed. He must indicate this in a location that also requires full nudity.
“We are staging the unstageable here,” Dimitriadis whispers. “I’ve never been more conscious of safety.”
‘It won’t be a “safe” production by any means, but it does come from a safe space’. Stephen Madsen and Charles Purcell rehearse their scene. Photograph: Robert Catto
Their main concerns are physical safety and mental health: “This is not an easy material to do, and it is sometimes very painful to watch colleagues acting in extreme distress.” The company has a mental health professional on standby for the whole season. “It’s about establishing a care-centered culture across everything we do,” Dimitriadis says.
Before rehearsing the scenes, the actors run through an agreed touch exercise. Facing each other and making eye contact, they place their hands on their faces, hair, arms, torso, legs, and feet while saying “yes, yes, yes, yes”.
Some actors worry that intimacy coordinators will prevent people from making provocative art. But my experience is the opposite Stephen Madsen, an actor
That level of care is new to Madsen, who plays Carl. He finds it empowering. “The journey Carl goes on is something I don’t think I would attempt with another company,” he says after rehearsal. “When you’re in a team motivated by creating a safe environment, it allows you to ‘go there’. It won’t be a ‘safe’ production, but it does come from a safe space. This gives us the power and the support to see how far we can go.”
Cleansed has also engaged the services of Bayley Turner, an intimacy and consent consultant. It is her job to help actors through a difficult process and to protect performers and producers from some of the issues that have bedeviled the entertainment industry for years: appropriate backstage and rehearsal room behaviors, for example.
“Usually, an intimacy coordinator is just brought in for a scene that’s an issue,” Turner says. “On Cleansed, I had much more input and was able to develop policies specific to this cast.”
Created by an all-queer creative team, Dimitriadis’ cast features several gender-diverse and trans performers, who can be more vulnerable than their cisgender colleagues in some circumstances, says Turner, a trans woman herself.
“The trans body is so politicized, and the media representation is so charged,” she says. “By placing a femme actor with a penis naked on a stage, for example, you are evoking ideas that have come down to us over the years, that trans bodies are disgusting or unnatural. That can be a prompt for violence. We have to be very respectful of the performer when you are putting them into a position like that.”
Some in the industry have suggested that intimacy coordinators and creative spontaneity are antithetical, Madsen says. “Some actors worry that intimacy coordinators will somehow infantilize everybody and prevent people from making provocative art. But my experience is the opposite.
“It’s like bringing in a combat choreographer to work out a fight. If I had to work out a fight myself, it would be pretty tame because I’d be worried about hurting the other person. But as soon as there is a coordinator in the room helping you through the process, you can make something more dynamic, more dangerous-looking – even though it’s safer.”
One element of the show remains unpredictable: the audience. Dimitriadis is prepared for unexpected responses. People who need to leave the tiny Old Fitzroy can do so without interrupting the acting space, for example, the cast has a safety word that, if uttered, will immediately bring the show to a stop.
Dimitriadis hopes the audience can both withstand and understand. “The important thing to remember is that Kane is writing about what can happen to the human soul. You can’t put a soul on stage, so she uses the human body as a metaphor for what is happening to the soul. On one level, there is a very strong reality – someone being beaten, someone being assaulted – but on another plane, the play is above that level. It’s an emotional case study, not a horror show.”