Crave photo (c) The Bacchanals

by sarah kane

Littered with words like guilt, death, headache and heartache, Crave is not for the soft-eared or light-hearted. In fact, it is the play's relentless focus on all things tragic that characterises it and gives it its almost excruciating depth.
            Written by the late British playwright Sarah Kane (she killed herself a year after writing the play) Crave is a lament that displays almost crudely the clutches of depression. Pain blossoms on stage as the four characters tie each other up in knots of love, lust, guilt and anger. "This is terrible," says one of the characters and he is right. But my god it's beautiful.
            The script sparkles and spits, tugging at the viewer, even as it causes them to recoil with its sharp edges. Kane has succeeded in combing the pleasure of sharp, insightful words with the pain of their meanings.
            All of the performances were strong and honest, some remarkably so. Nothing short of bravery would be required to embrace these roles and the actors do so with passion and commitment.
            With a virtually empty set, and a very text-based script, the chances of the play lapsing into stylistic cliché were high. The directive prowess of David Lawrence avoided this trap.
            Crave is like an item of clothing that is uncomfortable and scratches your skin. It may not even fit right in all the necessary places. But it's such a catching colour and there is something so...truthful about it that you wear it anyway. Maybe even two days in a row.
- Kathy, The Package

Uplifting despite tone of despair

As its name suggests Crave is a piece totally coloured by its characters' overwhelming and all-consuming need.
            In advance it seemed to hold out the possibility of being extremely depressing, but experiencing this very fine production by The Bacchanals, one left the 50-minute play feeling oddly uplifted despite the despairing tone of much of the writing.
            The scene is set by the back-projection of a graffiti-scarred abandoned street. On the stage the four actors sit with their backs to us.
            As the show begins they turn and speak, at first alone and then in duos, a trio or quartet as their overlapping conversations become dialogues or counterpoints.
            What they say are mostly anguished lines about love - love lost, love betrayed and brutalised.
            In fact, you slowly realize, it's not their love that has been unrequited but their neediness. In depressive style they've zeroed in on craving itself rather than the objects of their craving.
            At the same time we see projected behind them images suggesting the possibility of infinity - sands, the cosmos - and perhaps therefore the possibility of hope and peace.
            Probably the key image is that of a hand holding a flower. This is held for a while and becomes a source of tension the longer it's there. Will that flower be crushed, we wonder?
            This image reveals why Crave is a drama despite its total absence of a conventional plot or dramatic devices. What we worry about is the survival of these characters whom we have come to appreciate: as their anxieties become more plain to us we become more gripped by their situation. Or will they take their own path to infinity by killing themselves?
            The members of The Bacchanals who perform in this play are Tina Helm, Carey Smith, Eve Middleton and James Stewart. They create a seamless ensemble exactly like that of a well-balanced string quartet as they recreate the essentially musical rhythm of the writing.
            David Lawrence's direction is most strong here in the way the characters move through space, dynamically creating the psychic universe of Kane's characters in physical space. Clearly there are several ways you could deal with words like these and here the director has adopted an expressive style.
            There's no reason to fault that, but to say that at times it can and does lead to a shrillness at the most anguished and therefore highest volume moments.
- Timothy O'Brien, The Dominion Post

It is widely, if not universally, accepted that a play has to be more than personal therapy made public to become valid theatre. But with Crave there is not even a therapeutic process happening. There is only a deeply humourless hunger for something other than all that seems to be.
            As its four actors wallow in the septic sludge of human existence, the people they play and the random platitudes they speak exhibit a compulsive inability to lift their sights above "me, myself and I". They slowly drown in the self-defeating assumption that life is something that's being done to them and it's supposed to be doing them better. In short, Crave is an exercise in destructive self-indulgence that can only have one inevitable and uninspiring end.
            This is the fourth and penultimate play of a mentally disturbed young woman who, at the age of 28 (in 1999) hanged herself in a hospital bathroom. Two days before, a flatmate had foiled her earlier suicide attempt. With the wisdom of hindsight, it is easy to see Crave as the extended suicide note of a clinically depressed and therefore self-defeating mind.
            According to the British Theatre Guide, Sarah Kane had a breakdown in 1997, the year before Crave premiered at the Traverse in Edinburgh before returning home to the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs in London. In the face of comprehensive critical condemnation of her previous plays, Blasted (1995), Phaedra's Love (1996) and Cleansed (1997), The Royal Court continued to nurture Kane's supposed talent. Or maybe they were exploiting her notoriety.
            It is my guess that the radical revisionism that has swirled around Sarah Kane's plays is driven, in part, by a need to assuage the collective guilt of those who were part of the process. Either that or the wellspring of guilt has simply increased the capacity for commercial exploitation.
            Harold Pinter, who leapt to Kane's defence over Blasted (in which, for example, limbs are chopped off, a woman receives a penis transplant, and heroin is injected through an eyeball [note: none of these events occur in Blasted.]), is right when he says, "[She is] facing something actual and true and ugly and painful." But should she have faced her demons in public or in private with a professional counsellor? How able is the theatre industry to exercise the compassion, support and rigorous therapy she clearly needed?
            A critic who experiences Kane's plays as alienating assault, devoid of effective dramatic engagement, must be free to say so. It may well be that, as some have suggested, Crave can be played as a lyrical yet authentic symphony for four voices that engages us and rewards our interest and attention. But this premiere New Zealand production goes nowhere near that for me.
            I find it intriguing that in the process of pursuing their admirable quest to go where others fear to tread, the Bacchanals continue to reveal their craft limitations. Carey Smith, Eve Middleton, James Stewart and Tina Helm exercise the same range of emotions with the same physical and vocal manifestations we've seen before. They seem to make each role they play fit their moulds rather than stretch themselves to meet each new challenge. Tina Helm's repetitive excursions into tremulous weeping verging on hysteria are especially tedious this time around.
            Director David Lawrence claims the writing in Crave is complex and multi-layered. "Whereas initially it seemed to affirm my feelings of hate and despair," he writes in the programme, "it now seems to affirm love and redemption through those two mighty opposites, cruelty and compassion."
            Had he and his actors managed to find and share such insight on the night, I'd concede the journey was worth it. But because the most dramatic element in his production is the use of bright white light as the threshold is crossed, it clearly supports the play's glorification of death as the answer.
            So my misgivings are moral as well as artistic. I can't help wondering what effect this production might have on an audience member prone to depression. Could it provoke them to emulate its outcome or might realising they're not alone stop them feeling so desperate? Should counselling and help line numbers be clearly publicised (as they are when such material airs on television) or does the right of artists, and all people for that matter, to express themselves regardless of the limitations of others absolve them of further responsibility?
- John Smythe

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