Sarah Kane

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Extract from interview with Steve Waters

Sarah Kane is one of Britain’s greatest playwrights. She challenged and disrupted British theatre in the ’90s and her five plays are a remarkable legacy. She took her own life in 1999 just after completing 4.48 Psychosis.

I returned to my interview with Steve on the 20th anniversary of Kane’s death and thought that it was worth sharing his memories of her as a stand alone interview.

Steve Waters is a writer for stage, radio and screen. He is also very involved in the new playwriting scene. Steve has written about the pedagogy of playwriting and the nature of plays. He has been a participant in shaping arts policy for new playwrights. He ran the Playwriting MPhil at Birmingham University before moving to lead the Creative Writing MA at the University of East Anglia. Steve has been described as ‘one of the UK’s most accomplished political playwrights’. Steve attended to the Playwriting MPhil with Sarah Kane in 1992.

PC: What were your early experiences with Sarah Kane on that course?

SW: I can tell you exactly how it began: I was late for my first seminar I had gone for a walk into Birmingham thinking that I was nearer to the campus than I actually was. Unfortunately, it is an all too common experience for me. I walked into the room and David Edgar was sitting across the room in his usual black jacket looking like a Marxist from the 1970s. And a young woman in a leather jacket with short blonde hair and a piercing was sitting by the door. Very beautiful, she was an extremely beautiful person Sarah, ‘Saz’ as we knew her and I just thought, “You’re a really nice person.” She was very friendly; I think that she found it quite a traumatic year.

PC: Why was it traumatic?

SW: She’d been this incredibly successful, very bright student at Bristol University, I think she did a year doing other stuff possibly. Then came to Birmingham, the only game in town at that point. It felt, I think, for her, quite male, quite middle aged. There were only three women on that course that year. She just wouldn’t take, you know, Sarah’s gay, she was a woman and she was angry about that kind of stuff. She also didn’t want to be identified with certain things too. She was an extremely political person but in a much more immediate way than me. It was different to anything I’d experienced as “politics” before.

PC: What was the different kind of politics?

SW: It was about confrontation. There was an amazing weekend for instance, where Terry Johnson came along and led a workshop. He workshopped one of Sarah’s monologues and he just said, “This isn’t really working.” He gave an action in the monologue, perfectly valid things but he did it in a rather unfortunately arrogant fashion, it must be said, she was seething. We all went to a party and he was there. Sarah just let loose. She wasn’t prepared to just take that in a way that we often do in pedagogical situations, thinking: “I’m the problem, not them.” She didn’t think that. Not in an arrogant way but in a way that was about politics I think. Next thing, she wrote a play, which I think is the genesis of Blasted, a short play with a woman, with a gun to a man’s head. A young woman and a middle aged man I think and made them workshop that. It followed everything he wanted: action and objectives and so on, but it was obviously an attack on him and he didn’t like that as you can imagine. The next day we did a workshop with a very nice guy called Richard Pinner and he did one of those things: “Let’s all do an image of how we feel after this workshop weekend.” Sarah got into the middle of the room, sat on a chair, picked up a piece of script, hawked and gobbed a huge greeny on to this script, put it on the chair and walked out of the space. He just went, “Thank you Sarah.”

PC: It must have been fascinating to see those moments of inspiration. Were there other notable inspirations for her work?

SW: She was a very bright person: she was reading Jane Austen and Hardy. I was thinking, “Wow, she’ll be reading all this kind of Pynchon and Derrida.” But she just wasn’t interested with that. Both of us went to see a Forced Entertainment show, I was really into them, I thought they were really important, but she hated their guts. She really hated them with a loathing, whereas Howard Barker for her was a total hero. That visceralness, is what I’m talking about. We’ve all got different characters, that’s not my character. That visceralness came out of something that wasn’t always about equilibrium outside her and obviously, ultimately led to disastrous mental illness and suicide, which is an incredible loss. I still think now, “Where would she be now?” She died in ’99 and I think it was a long time ago. She’d be in her forties. What sort of plays would she be writing now? I don’t buy all that bullshit, burn in hell, rock ‘n’ roll sort of stuff but I do think the energy was incredible. The care for dialogue, the care for each line, she was a poet of the theatre.

PC: And her energy didn’t always fit with the course?

SW: Yes, she was going against the grain of the course. The course was much more structure and objective and narrative. Actually it was much more open than that, David is very good at that sort of thing but he also has a broad church. But that course was just the opposite of where she was coming from. Indeed, she got into quite a lot of conflict with the course and she wrote the first act of Blasted, that was her graduation piece. It is an incredible privilege to have been in the room when that is first performed. I can’t tell you the tension that led up to it. There was something about the uncensored quality of it, the racist jokes, the use of the word ‘cunt’ all the way through it. That word was almost taboo within left wing circles because of a certain type of propriety that came out of feminism and the like. She was a feminist but she didn’t want any of that, she believed in total freedom of expression and that was quite scary at that point.

PC: Why was it so scary?

SW: In a way, the left had created this coy, gentle version of how we handle these transformations, how we respond to feminism and so on and she was having none of that, which made a lot of people that were coming from that eighties period hostile to her: she was not respecting that debate. I think she was, I think she was very aware of it. That hostility led her increasingly to non-naturalism altogether, whereas, at that time, if you think about Blasted it was the purest expression of naturalism imaginable. For me the jury is out on the quality of some of those plays, but it doesn’t mean that I can’t acknowledge an incredible force that they had: the power of her personality comes out of her work in a very interesting way.

Visit Dan Rebellato’s website for more on Sarah Kane:

One of the few recorded interviews with Sarah Kane

Sarah Kane documentary

Visit Pau Ros’ website for photographs of Sarah Kane and her work:

Memories of Sarah Kane

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