Cleansed is a brilliant rainbow of junkie horror

What do student actors make of Kane’s notoriously challenging script?

Photography: Clare Hawley

I’m sitting in the coarse concrete courtyard outside PACT with a beer over a glass table. A cool spring breeze tickles a line of once-colourful lightbulbs, now washed out by summer sunshine. The courtyard’s rear is lined with a row of potted trees, succulents, and ferns which are under-watered and over-sunned. Strung through the crowns of these small trees is a line of Kmart Christmas lights which do not hear my mocking joke about them. All too quickly, a voice calls me in to the theatre.

Written by British playwright Sarah Kane, Cleansed has become something of a canonical production. It’s punchy, it’s challenging, and it makes your audience queasy. They will leave with polite controversy on their lips, guaranteed. Maybe they will argue about the meaning of it.

Today, a cast of young actors taking this on is sort of equivalent to doing a production of Hamlet; it’s pretty safe material. Kane’s racy script stands up even when embellished with the young actor’s painfully studied inflections. A habit which especially riles me is the actor’s line pause (I think I am coining this phrase): you know your partner in a particular scene has a line which interrupts yours, so you let her interrupt you with an actor’s line pause. It’s distracting enough on its own, but in the particular school of theatre to which Kane belongs, there is a necessity for lines that overlap and interrupt; no need to be polite. This pausing habit can’t help but rip me out of the play’s illusion and before long I can feel my bum getting sore on the little plastic chair which I’m in.


The set is an amorphous collage, three or four places smeared across the stage: an anonymous alleyway, a medical institution, a strip-club. Despite all of the places set up already, we witnessed something like a dozen scene changes, each after increasingly trying prop resets.

But, like Hamlet, this script could be read by troubled high school students, and it would still retain its most proud and striking themes. Such subject matter is a good barometer of how desensitised we might be by the vicious news cycle which churns out dread and gore daily: a brilliant rainbow of junkie horror is depicted in Cleansed — in fact the gore is this show’s best part. I found myself imagining Geoffrey Chaucer sitting next to me, having the time of his life, witness to all manner of depravity.

Judging by the script, Cleansed is a challenging play for any group to put on, let alone such a youthful troupe.

With all this considered, if you have never seen Cleansed before, and if you think you like theatre even a little bit, go and see this play. Have a few lubricative drinks with a group of friends first, though. The script is one of the great plays of our time and this is a fun and thought provoking production by a group of actors who might be new to such challenging material. You might be new to it too: I know I was.