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Two Fingers to Anyone Who Thought the Canon Didn't Look Like Sarah Kane

24/02/2016 16:31 GMT | Updated 24/02/2017 10:12 GMT

Sorry if you have been in my vicinity in the last week because I will have shouted at you IT'S ONLY THREE MORE SLEEPS UNTIL SARAH KANE DAY. (I'm actually not sorry, never am.)

This isn't a national holiday where we all do a bit of incest and get smacked up in honour of the late, great playwright Sarah Kane. It was just the day that I was going to watch her play, Cleansed, for the first time.

It was the first time, in fact, that I had ever seen Kane's work performed in a theatre. And it was at the National Theatre. You know, the big daddy. (Let's gender neutralise that phrase to 'the big parent'.)

If Cleansed has crossed your radar and you're not a nerdy stage-botherer on the regs like me, it's probably because of the news stories about walkouts and people fainting in the theatre. Or it might be because you're aware of the fact that Kane killed herself at the age of 28. But the sensationalism around her work is white noise.

The morning after the night before, post-Sarah Kane day I am happy to report that it was simultaneously one the best experiences of my life and also the worst.

Why? It's horrific to watch. Worse than that, it's incredibly unsettling. It's hard work, it laughs in the face of theatrical convention, and it is pure, compelling beauty.

The play takes place in a university that has become an institution for lost souls, all of whom are forced by a sadistic overseer called Tinker to the endure the extremes of pain for the people they love. I refuse to give anything away, but stage gore is nothing next to the haunted look of people falling into the deepest depths of utter agony, and still coming up for air because they are clinging on to love.

When the lights came up I felt weirdly exposed. Which is strange, since there were people on the stage who had genuinely been naked for almost two hours. I think it was because I was so overcome by so many different weird, joyous, traumatic and confused feelings and I really really wanted to feel all of them.

Of course I felt visceral disgust, but there was something worse than that which was also magnificent. It was witnessing the eerie intermingling of abject misery tussling with the most fragile optimism.

Some of our greatest playwrights challenge us intellectually in inimitable ways, but Kane's work challenges us on the most profound human level. Perhaps that's why some people don't like it.

Katie Mitchell's production is obscenely beautiful - so much so that Ann Treneman wrote that it was 'pretty close to five-star perfect' despite the fact she felt so personally repelled that she gave it one star.

I must admit, there's something about Mitchell's heavily European style which is so cold and arch that it is in danger of disconnecting from the profoundly tender moments in Kane's writing. But she is a boundary-pushing director, tackling the work of a boundary-annihilating writer, and the writing is so good that even when it feels like doing ten rounds in an existential boxing ring, you will not feel alienated.

Alienation is vital to everything about Sarah Kane's long journey to the National. When those who could not grasp the magnitude of her work felt alienated, they alienated her as a writer. How painful it must have been to be so brave and brilliant a writer and be so hastily dismissed.

It strikes me that the following words from Chris Kraus's I Love Dick perfectly describe the pattern around female writers who don't employ the same language and forms that we've always known:

To be female still means being trapped within the purely psychological. No matter how dispassionate or large a vision of the world a woman formulates, whenever it includes her own experience and emotions, the telescope's turned back on her.

Kane was so smart, so bold, so troubling, and so uncompromising, that it was easier to turn the telescope back on her - to say she was an agent provocateur, fucked up, failing to say anything.

Staging her work at the National is An Event. Not because of the alarmist headlines or because Quentin Letts was grossed out, but because it is a statement of intent. It looks at the canon and says, this makes you feel alienated doesn't it? You're tired of men in monocles writing essays for the mouths of men with pocket watches aren't you?

Take another look. Still feeling alienated?