By Gavin Elias
Art seldom converges with insanity more intimately than it does with ‘Crave’. The penultimate work of British playwright Sarah Kane (who, after struggling with severe depression and psychosis herself, committed suicide in a mental institution), ‘Crave’ unfolds as a character study of the broken human mind – a theatrical freight train into the turbid depths of psychological agony. It’s a play that dismisses all niceties and euphemisms from the outset, and one that makes no attempt to refine or simplify the complicated (and even confusing) nature of its subject material. Accordingly, it’s also a supremely challenging play – both to understand, and to stage. Yet this fact only makes the achievement of the cast and crew of the student-directed, UCC-BSS production of ‘Crave’ even more remarkable, as their rendition of the work cannot be described as anything less than a terrific success. By embracing an unsettling and difficult work with creativity, finesse, and emotional intensity, they have delivered something both elusive and startling – a performance whose brutal power is surpassed only by its lyrical elegance and poignancy.
At the core of ‘Crave’s power, of course, are its four protagonists; these are the tortured confessors whose painful stories of heartbreak, isolation and madness propel the piece’s encompassing drama. And though they are united in their emotional agony, the four are clearly distinguished by their differing personalities – a critical element that is entirely facilitated by the generally brilliant acting on display. Jake Danto-Clancy (IB2) displays great dramatic range as ‘A’, shifting from nonchalant anecdotes to impassioned rants with beguiling fluidity. Equipped with the largest share of the spotlight, he gives a riveting performance that positively bleeds pathos – one that arguably reaches its heart-wrenching pinnacle during his longer monologues about frustrated love. Also impressive is Max Carnella (IB1) as the comparatively understated ‘B’. Less talkative, but perhaps more pithy than Danto-Clancy’s ‘A’, he is prone to multilingual asides and terse, forceful statements, all of which are handled adeptly. Contrastingly, Rachel Stone (BSS) spends most of her time as ‘C’ as a nervous, quivering wreck; as the most ostensibly psychotic character of the four, she plays a particularly important role in ramming home the play’s theme of mental disintegration. Happily, she is startlingly convincing in this capacity, offering up haunted cadences about hallucinatory white maggots that are almost as eerie as her bloodcurdling screams. Rounding out the quadrumvirate is Kyla Weinrib (BSS) as the complex, neurotic ‘M’; lacing her voice with irony and offering comments that range from the existential to the absurd, she manages to lend the piece an anxious humour that enriches the generally brooding mood, even as she participates in the communal soul bearing.
However, while the acting is superb, the most stunning – and indeed distinctive – element of ‘Crave’ is arguably its dialogue and the structure it predicates. Like the play itself, the dialogue is incredibly fragmented; the characters speak to each other primarily in pairs, with two simultaneous conversations intertwined to the extent that the four are constantly interrupting each other. Indeed, it is often difficult to grasp what exactly is going on amidst the fractured verbiage – not only is it ambiguous at times who is speaking to whom (as the dual exchanges often bleed into one another, both through theme and diction), but it becomes challenging even to follow one character’s train of thought to its conclusion. This ambiguity is further exacerbated by the lack of any conventional plot; we are never supplied with context or even a basic premise, and so must glean what we can from the convoluted dialogue. Even the nature of the characters’ relation to one another is not explicitly specified, leaving almost everything open to interpretation. Meanwhile, the language itself is poetic, but markedly plain; in fact, its power largely seems to stem from the visceral way it mimics thoughts and feelings with its fluid, unstructured nature. There’s also a wonderful musicality within the dialogue – one that emerges in full force as the short, primal syllables ricochet rhythmically off four separate lips, as the characters crescendo from soft murmurs to choked emotion, and as their troubled voices meld and detach, each a distinct melody in some elaborately orchestrated fugue. Indeed, in many ways, the play’s fragmented and lyrical nature is a chief cause of its verisimilitude, for the dissociative threads twist and interweave in a way that structurally imitates the disjointed mentality of its characters, providing a powerful and unique sensory experience.
Another remarkable aspect of ‘Crave’ is its direction, all of which is supplied with aplomb by IB2 student Matthew Walker. Taking full advantage of the play’s lack of performance directions and specified setting, he has fashioned an atmosphere that both facilitates and enhances its psychosocial musings. The set, for example, manages to be both minimalist and markedly representative of the protagonists’ mental state – designed with the support of Kevin Ballon (IB2) and operated by Jack Taylor (IB1), it consists of nothing more than four chairs (with a single lightbulb dangling over each) contained within an insular, bleach-white emptiness. Walker uses lighting to great effect too; while he shrouds the set in darkness for the majority of the play, this allows for dynamic visual manipulation of the audience later on, as the sudden, searing illumination of the set not only sears our eyeballs but unleashes delirium onstage. Indeed, when it comes to the use of contrast, Walker seems to have made all the right choices. By using a primarily static approach to blocking, (the characters spend the majority of the play seated), he draws attention to the minute – subtle changes in body language and positioning are magnified, and when real movement occurs, it stands out, breaking the stagnancy like a kinetic bullhorn. Similar success is achieved with space, which is employed to great effect both physically and temporally. Just as a cavernous gulf separates the audience from the isolated protagonists, numerous breaks punctuate the frantic dialogue; these act as collective gulps of silence amidst the burn of emotional intensity, not only delineating the verbal exchanges with pockets of calm, but possessing a tangible power of their own. Perhaps the greatest testament to Walker’s measured direction, though, is the tonal coherence of the play – almost every one of his creative decisions works to crystallize what might otherwise have been simply a chaotic exposé into a stylistic and focused work.
It might be impossible to pinpoint ‘Crave’s essential message or meaning – as can be expected in a work whose structure and style so closely mimics the minds of its (deeply troubled) characters, much of what transpires simply feels bizarre and muddled. Similarly, we are almost certain to leave the theatre unclear of the specifics of what actually unfolded and confused as to the logical progression of events; despite our best efforts, the facts remain vague and ghostlike, almost deliberately so. But of course, this is immaterial, because ‘Crave’ is not about facts or logic, it’s about emotions – pure, unadulterated and horrifying emotions that come and come until you can barely contain them. And through its overwhelming deluge of thoughts and feelings, it captures something intrinsic, tapping into those little urges, wants and fears we all know so intimately, but don’t express or articulate. In vaulting from the surreal to the distressing, it happens upon some measure of truth, even if it’s truth we’d rather ignore. Because ‘Crave’ is, in many ways, an intensely disturbing work. But it’s also a beautiful one – and it is the marriage of these two qualities that ultimately elevates the play to what it is here – a raw, utterly uncompromising portrayal of the loss, heartbreak and isolation that lie at the very crux of the human condition. And in making it so, Walker and his cast have crafted a work that is both touching, and spectacular.