The dancing in Cleansed is urgent, desperate and beautiful; the kind of dancing that you can’t control, it just flows. It pulses through Grace’s tormented body as she shivers across the stage.
Robin kneels on the floor, as chocolates are dropped into his open mouth. It is a slow and painful scene. His red dress screams in the middle of the washed out palette; his gagging echoes in the silence; a sick bowl rests beneath him as he accepts his horrible punishment.
There are signs plastered on every inch of the National warning you that Cleansed contains graphic physical and sexual violence. All the coverage – even in previews, when it was a hum over Twitter rather than column inches – has been about the faintings and walk outs. I was surprisingly undisturbed by the whole thing, because after so many warnings and so much build up, there was almost no way Cleansed could have been as unflinchingly violent as I had been made to think.
Mitchell’s production straddles the line between nightmare and reality. In row B, very near to the stage, the theatre of it all is visible. In close quarters it’s easier to let your suspension of disbelief slip and know that this isn’t real, these are just images playing out before you. This is part protective reflex: find the flaw in the staging and save yourself the trauma of sinking too far in this world, but it is part of the beauty of the production, too, which you can read about in the Exeunt review.
As I was watching Cleansed, I wasn’t sure I liked it. I mean, I definitely didn’t *like* it, in the way I doubt I will ever like something in which tongues are torn out or limbs get sawed off. But I wasn’t sure if I was fired up by it. Then the reviews came out, followed by the think pieces, plus interviews with Katie Mitchell, too. I have never lapped up coverage in quite the same way: I got a bit obsessed with Cleansed. Obsessed with what it was trying to do, with the feelings it made everyone burst with, with everything it might or might not be.
I am haunted by Cleansed. Not by the violence of it, but the impact of it and all the words surrounding it. In the short time I’ve been interested in theatre, this is perhaps the first instance where I have sat in amongst a debate and there’s something I love about the divisiveness of it. The division seems necessary. The anger from the predictably-angry seems necessary, because it is fuelling conversations about women in the spotlight, and about violence, and love, and about what theatre means to us all anyway.
Then, in the middle of all of the words and think pieces and the walk-out statistics, there are two images. The first: Grace dancing during the final moments of the show. The second: Robin in a red dress forcing his way through a whole box of chocolates. Through the graphic violence, it is these moments that have gotten under my skin. The urgency in Grace’s dancing and the need to move and find hope. The sad, slow scoffing of Robin, as he endures the one act here that is not acting, that is actually an act of quiet violence playing out before us. The warnings and the twitter talk made me put up all my guards, but these two scenes fought through with a violence I wasn’t prepared for.
National Theatre, Dorfman