Sarah Kane’s presence looms large over The Other Room. It isn’t just that Blasted was the theatre’s inaugural production; her roots stretch deeper than that. Blasted was a blueprint for the kind of theatre this small venue has gone on to produce – bold, powerful, character-driven, a deliberate nod to the in-yer-face theatre that defined the Royal Court in the mid-nineties. Crave fits perfectly within that model and, through the Professional Pathways Programme, Kane’s penultimate play finally reaches Wales.
It might seem redundant to say that collaboration is key to a production’s success, but that’s never more crucial than in Crave. Near-nameless characters have interweaving conversations in a script that offers so much thematically but little in the way of coherent narrative. It’s left to the creative team to give it the context and interpretation it invites and, as is to be expected from a Sarah Kane play, that involves an inescapable dive into depravity. Interestingly, director Samantha Jones makes the four protagonists more likable than the text suggests. They are all broken, of course, and vulnerable because of it; but eliciting sympathy for a character like B, such a chillingly current reflection on toxic masculinity, can only be deliberately done.
Frankly, toxic masculinity is one of the lighter themes to pop up over the show’s forty-five-minute running time. Incest, paedophilia and suicide are just some of the others, raised and then discarded with a cold matter-of-factness. Of course Crave is about how painful love is; all of Kane’s plays are. But specifically, Crave is about how that pain echoes through generations. The characters are this vague, and the narrative this loose, because these stories exist in the past, the present and the future. What a coincidence, then, that the four actors are from different parts of the world, reinforcing the idea that these ideas of love and pain are universal.
An extremely fortunate coincidence it is too, as all four performers deliver stunning performances. The Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama already boasts a stacked alumnus, but the fact that these four actors are still studying is incredible. Perhaps its the need to prove a point; perhaps it’s a desire to make the best first impression; whatever the motivation, they have all risen to the occasion and embraced complex, challenging roles with aplomb. They do have the benefit of working with Kane’s beautiful poetry, but it’s the physicality of each actor that really stays with the audience. Only forty-five minutes, and they are all physically and emotionally spent by the end. It’s a testament to their commitment to the production, and Jones’ ability to draw that out of them night after night.
Jones also deserves credit for her minimalist approach to the design. Zoe Brennan and Mimi Donaldson, turn the traverse auditorium into a black-and-white void, visually echoing T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, and the characters also have little in the way of colour. The use of chalk dust and enamel looks great visually but, other than giving characters something to do while the action is focused elsewhere, that device feels unnecessary. Josh Bowles’ soundscape is typically brilliant, matching the ebbs and flows of the play with a sometimes-haunting score, while Ryan Joseph Stafford’s lighting creates ambience without really standing out.
Almost everyone involved in this production of Crave is still a student, which makes its success that much more remarkable. It’s by no means perfect, and its also not the best piece of theatre to be staged in that auditorium. What these young artists have done, though, is evoked – and possibly reignited – the raw intensity of The Other Room in 2015. There was a passion back then, a craving (so to speak) for the opportunity to change the Welsh theatre landscape. Four years later, a new generation have been given that opportunity, and it looks like the theatre landscape will indeed change again.