Birmingham Rep is hosting a new take on one of the most controversial plays of the 1990s, writes Terry Grimley...
When Sarah Kane's first play Blasted was staged in 1995, it provoked the kind of critical backlash not seen in British theatre since the 1960s.
An evening of rape, torture, cannibalism and murder provoked by the war in Bosnia but set in a London hotel room, it was memorably condemned by one London reviewer as a "disgusting feast of filth".
Since the first production was seen by fewer than 1,000 people (including Harold Pinter, who sent Kane a personal fan letter) it was described as one of the most talked-about and least-seen plays in theatre history.
Nevertheless, Kane's posthumous reputation - she committed suicide in 1999, after suffering from manic depression for years - is high, and her work has been extensively staged around Europe. But I can't recall her work being staged in Birmingham, where she was a student on the MA course in playwrighting at Birmingham University, until now.
If the play itself is an uncomfortable experience, there may be an additional layer of potential discomfort in the fact that the production which opens tonight at Birmingham Rep's studio, The Door, is presented by Graeae Theatre Company, the company dedicated to presenting the work of disabled theatre practitioners.
Having been founded in 1981, Graeae Theatre is celebrating its 25th birthday this year.
"The aim was then, as it is now, to profile the skills and excellence of disabled actors, directors and writers," says artistic director Jenny Sealey.
"The physical climate has changed in the development of new fully accessible arts centres which give Graeae a platform for the work, but there is still a long way to go to change the attitudinal barriers within the creative industry, which is why Graeae has continued to exist into the 21st century."
Sealey is herself deaf, so our interview was conducted via email.
"There are so few companies that have disabled people at the helm, and this is what sets us apart from companies that are led by non-disabled people for disabled actors. There is a big difference!"
"I am extremely privileged to work with some of the most skilled actors who challenge me far more than non-disabled actors. We are a company who work with what we have rather than what we do not have and I do think I would be bored working in a different framework."
What made the company decide to tackle Kane's controversial play?
"I have always known about Blasted, but I did not really discover the play until recently when I worked on it with two blind directors and a team of actors. We found the play lent itself perfectly to the Graeae aesthetic, and provided fascinating opportunities for us to take a creative approach to interpreting otherwise non-verbal communication within the script.
"Sarah Kane forced the world to listen to atrocities happening in the world. People do not like being told! Kane tired to challenge and change this apathy.
"At Graeae my role is to place disabled actors on stage and claim our right to be there. Again people do not like being told. Audience and critics have, in the not too distant past, voiced their disgust at seeing a 'deformed person' on stage and a few producing houses are still genuinely concerned about employed disabled people for fear of upsetting their audiences.
"Things are slowly changing but still much of what Graeae is about is using theatre to challenge and change attitudinal barriers."
So how does she rate this play and Sarah Kane's work in general?
"My take on Blasted is that it is an uncomfortable play in that Kane unleashed a vile recognition that we all could potentially take the same journey as the characters in the play. The war within a safe hotel is a microcosm of the wars in Bosnia and now Iraq. We live in a violently brutal world and we refuse to admit it both home and away.
"Kane allowed the unsaid to be said. Each of her plays venture into a whole new dramatic sphere. Blasted is perhaps her most linear narrative. She has written plays that challenge directors, actors and designers in a way that feel almost impossible and you are constantly thinking how an earth can you achieve what it is she wanted.
"She is a maverick who is a director's writer because within the impossiblity is the weird security that all the clues are there and she somehow navigates you through your own personal journey and gives you the freedom to 'just do'. Her plays are like a gift."
As well as a collaboration with Glasgow-based Suspect Culture on a play about the complexity of communication in a hearing and deaf world, Graeae's plans for 2007 includes a reworking of the Snow White fairy tale for seven years upwards and a new play by Richard Cameron which chart's disabled women's war efforts and their lives within John Grooms institutes.
"There is no violence in either of these plays, but they are both rooted within the cultural heritage of disabled people, which by-and-large is an invisible part of history," says Sealey.
* Graeae Theatre Company presents Blasted at The Door, Birmingham Repertory Theatre from tonight until Saturday (Box office: 0121 236 4455).