“This isn’t a story anyone wants to hear,” Ian says to the soldier in Blasted when he describes a particularly brutal mutilation of a woman. It has been twenty years since Sarah Kane’s debut play about gin-soaked journalist Ian who rapes his teenager lover Cate confounded its audience with a startlingly stark vision of human relationships and its violent sexual imagery. Cordelia Lynn’s piece Lela & Co. which has just opened at the Royal Court Upstairs deals with a human in crisis in a blindingly urgent way. The points where Lela and Blasted touch are strikingly obvious: a young girl subjected to sexual violence by an older man, an unnamed conflict, a soldier who breaks into the despairing world to spark hope and leave devastation. There are more parallels between the two pieces, subtle references maybe and the matter-of-fact way in which they depict the violence that can and will break human bodies.
However, it’s the differences between these two texts that are particularly notable. Fuelled by another twenty years of blind neoliberal politics grinding human compassion to shreds, Lynn zeroes in on how the root of sexual abuse has become even more systemic. It is no longer the tragedy of two people left to their own devices fighting out the unevenly distributed power among themselves. Blasted paired its thematic exploration of irreversible trauma with a powerful but restrained language that moved across all registers of repulsion, tenderness and humour. In Lela & Co., with the main character spluttering out words ceaselessly, the author blows the fuse out of all linguistic restraint. In this two-hander, Katie West as Lela delivers a rushing and fragmented near-monologue, swerving from the amusingly anecdotal to the matter-of-factly mortifying in mere seconds.
We hear the story of Lela’s life: How she was brought up in a village collecting childhood memories that will wrap themselves around traumatic wounds in years to come. How she got married to an older man who, when war breaks out, locks her into a small room. How her husband then starts selling her body to other men. How she gets impregnated by one of the punters. How a soldier she asks for help in a tender moment puts the nebulous greater good before compassionate action. How the men in her life have fucked her over, often literally. A choleric father, an abusive brother-in-law, the husband-turned-pimp, the soldier and finally a husband that can’t, and won’t, ever know of Lela’s gruesome story from the war; all these men are played by David Mumeni. The male privilege shining smarmily on the lapels of his golden suit, he continuously interjects into Lela’s rambling account like an increasingly sinister compère at a variety show. West’s delivery of the text feels like she’s struggling for breath in front of our eyes. One gulp is just enough to get her from one atrocity to the next and yet she smiles a disconcertingly upbeat smile.
The text has more to offer than director Jude Christian allows it to give. Transactions for money and transgressions against flesh, Lynn’s text is concerned with is how a single victim copes within a society that puts profit above all else and fuels anxiety in its people. At the moment we live through a steady installation of this ‘State of Exception’ which will ultimately lead to the desiccation of humanity’s capacity for compassion. Lynn’s unrestrained flow of words is an overcompensation for all the stories that have never been told and the director chooses to square unspeakable things with ideas of visibility. In the first instance this makes a lot of sense because visibility of suffering and storytelling are inextricably connected. However, Christian’s visually brash production does little to enhance the sometimes unruly text. With its red velvet curtains in the background and tutu costumes that mimic a cutesy pink innocence, the production tries too hard to diametrically oppose the bleak context of the text. It’s a shallow juxtaposition. Gimmicks, like the operation of a candyfloss machine, only create distortions and a particularly biting section in the text in the style of an advert doesn’t land because its over-stylised nature is not distinct enough from the gaudy variety show look of the rest of the piece.
This month the picture of one refugee boy washed ashore seemed to have cracked a long-cultivated callousness. How can you see those images and not be touched, it was asked, as if visual proof is needed that compassion is still necessary. Long stretches of Lela & Co. are performed in complete darkness with only few dim glimmers. Cut off from the spectacle, and without being able to consume and watch, the audience is forced to fall back on an innate capacity to feel compassion again.
At some point in Sarah Kane’s Blasted the soldier put his mouth over Ian’s eye sockets and sucks them out to eat them. Towards the end of Lynn’s play, after being exposed to brash lights, flickers and darkness, Lela rounds on the audience and stares them in the eyes. “I would take out your eyes and eat them. I would eat. Your eyes.” Unlike the soldier hers is a mere warning. She would. But she doesn’t. It’s not an empty threat laced with kindness. She simply can’t. It’s not in her power. All she can do is tell a story no one wants to hear.