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Elyse Dodgson on Sarah Kane

“She Was a Pure Writer”

three people talking
Elyse Dodgson, Kristina Matvienko, and John Freedman. Photo by Olympia Orlova-Vilberg.

Elyse Dodgson, the International Director at the Royal Court Theatre in London, is a legend in the international world of play development. She is a super legend in Russia. It was Dodgson’s playwriting seminar with a group of virtually unknown Russian playwrights in 1999 that kicked off what is now known as the powerful Russian New Drama movement. Dodgson returned to Moscow a couple of times after that, but, as she told us, she didn’t feel the need to maintain a strong presence in Russia because she could see that Russian writers had accepted the challenge of building their future for themselves.

But it’s always a fascinating thing to bring participants of important events back to ground zero again. To make that story clear, a short detour is in order.

When famed Russian film director Alexander Zeldovich resolved to stage Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis at Moscow’s Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, an intriguing idea began making its way around the theatre’s corridors. You see, the Electrotheatre, run by artistic director Boris Yukhananov, is a proclaimed “director’s theatre.” Yukhananov, a leading figure of Russian underground theatre, cinema, and art from the 1980s to the 2000s, is a striking, unorthodox, and innovative director. Since taking over the Electrotheatre (it opened in January 2015), he has produced some of the most cutting-edge theatre in Moscow in recent years. He brought in world-renowned masters such as Theodoros Terzopoulos, Romeo Castellucci, and Heiner Goebbels, unveiled numerous avant-garde works himself, and found the time to support unknown Russian directors.

Zeldovich, whose only theatre production took place in 2003 with a production of Othello at the Meyerhold Center in Moscow, proposed a radical approach to Kane’s play. That’s very much in the wheelhouse of the Electrotheatre, but, what, many of us wondered, would someone like Elyse Dodgson think? After all, she had been present as Sarah Kane’s fame flourished and then her life came to an end by her own hand. Zeldovich’s production, titled merely Psychosis, was created with an artistic collective called AES+F (using the initials of the four participants last names) and was always going to be a radical interpretation. His spectacular visuals employ the aesthetics of computer games, animated film, and film installations. Zeldovich split the monologue among nineteen performers, all women. He rearranged the episodic text a bit and even cut a little here and there.

In other words, Zeldovich did precisely what any strong Russian director would do—he made the material his own. But what would someone from the Royal Court, the original producer of 4.48 Psychosis, think? We invited Elyse Dodgson to spend three days in residency at the theatre. She gave three public talks, including one with Zeldovich that HowlRound livestreamed on October 9. The Moscow theatre community received Elyse as a beloved friend come home, and she sat down one day to talk with two employees of the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre about Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis, and their place in history.

John Freedman: I would like to talk about Sarah Kane, about Psychosis, because you were there at the start and now, having attended Alexander Zeldovich’s production, you have seen where it stands in 2016. I would be interested in hearing a little bit about your work with Sarah when the play started to come together.

Elyse Dodgson: Sarah was invited by Artistic Director Stephen Daldry and Literary Manager Graham Whybrow to the Royal Court for readings and workshops of Blasted. We got the commitment to do that play early on and we learned what an incredible writer she was. You know, we often talk about writers’ unique voices and how to spot a writer at an early stage of their career. It was quite evident to everyone that this was going to be a major voice. This was at the time just before I started the international department and I was doing a mixture of things. I started doing international work, but I was also doing educational work. So I did all the post-show discussions and I did the post-show discussion of Blasted. I was also at the press night of Blasted, when critics and people walked out because they were so shocked, and Sarah had to go into hiding. So that reminded me of the stories we were told about the early days of the Royal Court. We were witnessing it again. It was incredible, it was on the news. We were on a program called Newsnight.

Kristina Matvienko: You mean about the war in Yugoslavia?

Elyse: No, Blasted was on the news; Sarah Kane’s play! I mean there was nothing in the report explicitly about Yugoslavia or the war. The report was about this play that outraged people so. There was a critic called Jack Tinker, who became a character in one of Sarah’s later plays. He called the play “this disgusting feast of filth.” And this young writer, a very vulnerable young woman in her mid-twenties, with her first play...She had to hide because she couldn’t take the glare of it. But Artistic Director Stephen Daldry appeared on Newsnight to defend her play. People like Harold Pinter and Edward Bond defended her too. But Sarah was hiding away and she was obviously much destroyed. This was 1995.

Kristina: Why they were so shocked?

Elyse: They were shocked by the violence of the language, by the rape scenes and the ending, by any kind of violence imaginable, dead babies, etc. I looked through Sarah Kane’s reviews, because I was doing the Q&A after the show that we always did as a part of the education program. She was very reluctant to appear publicly, but we trusted each other and I think that’s why she did attend and I did all I could to protect her.

I got to know her quite well. She was just a sort of person you get very attached to. She did her second play, Phaedra’s Love, at the Gate Theatre. Then the third play she did was Cleansed in the beginning of 1998. And that was around the time when I urged Sarah to do some international workshops. The first one that she did with me was in Bulgaria in April 1998. She had just written Cleansed, but it hadn’t been produced yet. It was around the time that I think she was probably in her greatest distress. I don’t want to talk too much about that, but it was around that time. So I got quite close to her during that time, particularly when we traveled together to Bulgaria. In April 1998 there was the opening of Cleansed, and shortly after that, in the summer of 1998, she worked as a mentor on the International Residency where we had writers from all over the world. She committed herself to working with these writers for a couple of days and she did something quite extraordinary. It was a year never to be forgotten. Almost every person who attended that residence is now a major playwright in their country (including Marius von Mayenburg in Germany and Rafael Spregelburd in Argentina). She came in and did an extraordinary workshop, which was on how she used her personal experience, documentary, and imagination in her work. It was also about the research that you needed, which always, always stimulated her imagination when working with the unconscious. She put all of us (I took part in it too) through the exercises she did. And at the end we had to present a piece of work we had created. Then she read out one of the scenes from Crave, which had not been staged yet, to demonstrate the process that she used.

In November of 1998 we went to Seville together and she did a workshop with Spanish writers. One of the things she did as part of that workshop was to ask them to bring in music that one plays at a funeral. She brought in her own. I think it was so clear at that time (she had been in hospital), that she wanted to end her life. She was talking about that quite openly. We were going to go to our first workshop in Russia, which I did later. That was in July 1999 and she died in February. I remember her saying that this might be worth living for, but it didn’t happen. She really wanted to go to Russia, and I felt her presence when I was there in 1999, but I don’t want to talk much about that.

When we were in Seville together, we were with a colleague called Mary Peate, who was very close to her too and Sarah was writing for about ten days (it was 4.48 Psychosis). She worked the whole period of time; she was definitely working on a play.

John: Did you see the text as she worked on it?

Elyse: No, I never saw it.

Kristina: I know that James McDonald directed the original production of Psychosis.

Elyse: Yes, what was very unusual for the theatre upstairs was using the windows, which were almost blacked-out. The theatre had beautiful wing-shaped windows but they had never used them in a production as we were doing at the moment. Then, in the last line, when she says, “Open the curtains,” the windows are opened and light comes in out of the square; it is daylight. James was very close to Sarah—he was her director of choice. He directed the first production of Blasted and he directed Cleansed. Vicki Featherstone (the current artistic director) directed Craved.

John: My understanding is that her exercises for writers were quite successful. Do you continue to use any of them in your workshops or are they too personal?

Elyse: For many years, probably for five years, I never touched any of that work. I felt I had no right. I was doing some work with American writers and New Dramatists. And I was with David Greig, a Scottish playwright, who was a close friend of Sarah’s when they were at the university. He was writing the introduction to the complete works of Sarah Kane and we made a decision to use some of the exercises because if we didn’t, no one would ever know them. So I have been doing them ever since. I did them in China, and now I just have done them in Chile. What is quite interesting is that so many people, particularly in the UK, have gone through that workshop with someone else. Others do them too, but it always comes back to me and it’s never quite the same as the original workshop. But that’s fine.


I think theatre gave her life. I just think nothing was strong enough to keep that life going.


Elyse Dodgson with director Alexander Zeldovich in front of poster for Psychosis at Stanislavsky Electrotheatre, Moscow. Photo by John Freedman.

Kristina: There is an idea that theatre can actually help a person. This seems to be a very strong belief. But Sarah Kane’s was a case where theatre was not able to help. What do you think of that? Is that fair or unfair?

Elyse: I think Sarah had great knowledge of the theatre. She was someone who wrote from her heart, and her thoughts and her dreams were there too. She knew all about structure, she knew all the words; even 4.48 Psychosis was very carefully controlled. I think theatre gave her life. I just think nothing was strong enough to keep that life going.

John: So let’s leap to the present day. Last night you watched Alexander Zeldovich and AES+F’s production of Psychosis. It’s an interpretation created by a director and a group of four individual artists, a multimedia piece. One would assume that is anathema to Sarah Kane and what she would have wanted. Can you respond to that?

Elyse: It’s very hard to say what Sarah Kane would have wanted when she was 28 and, obviously, what she might have wanted now. I think she was very meticulous about her plays. I remember when Cleansed was being produced at the Berliner Ensemble, she was absolutely furious that a word of stage direction had been changed, and she was very disheartened by that. But she changed as a writer over every play. 4.48 Psychosis doesn’t have characters and it doesn’t say how many actors. It really is a very open text, and I think it was very important to her how the play was going to be produced the first time. I’m sure she would have wanted the production she had—the absolute integrity, meticulousness, and brilliance that James McDonald brought to it.

But now we are talking about sixteen years after the original production; of a play that has become a classic. I think people should stay true to the text first. I think they can probably interpret the text with more freedom later. I didn’t know how I was going to feel about seeing it. I did notice that some of the texts were dropped and repositioned. I was aware that the numbers were missing. Some things seemed absolutely out of the ballpark. In terms of some of the scenes, I thought Sarah would have been amused actually. Some things were incredibly moving. The play has been made into an opera. [By Philip Venables at the Royal Opera House in London in 2016.—JF] I think it doesn’t stipulate how you do it. There was something fantastic about seeing nineteen women on stage. And when it worked for me, it did really work. And if something sidelined the play a bit and I felt it didn’t work for me, I was still moved by what the literature did for me.

Kristina: Has the significance of the play, the meaning, changed in these seventeen years?

Elyse: It’s hard for me to say because the play brings back a sense of personal loss, so it never changes for me. I went back to look at the text before I went to see the performance and I realized how long it’s been since I looked at the text. It brought back vivid memories of the time she was writing the text, but I think it has the brilliance and the power of a lasting piece of work.


She had tremendous influence. She wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries—in her work and in her own personal life. She pushed hard against the outrageousness that she saw in the world around her.


Production photo from Psychosis. Photo byb Olympia Orlova-Vilberg.

Kristina: Yesterday during your public talk, you said something rather emotional about how Sarah extended what a text can do and what a play can be; and how it became something more than it used to be. Did some kind of change take place after her?

Elyse: No, I don’t think one writer is a reason for change. But she had tremendous influence. She wasn’t afraid to push the boundaries—in her work and in her own personal life. She pushed hard against the outrageousness that she saw in the world around her. I think she was very particular about her own voice. And of course, it’s very interesting to go around the world talking about Sarah Kane, doing Sarah Kane workshops. I can always spot the young writer. In China I walked into the Beijing Drama Academy, and they have one of the most substantial and prestigious programs for studying playwriting. And the first word the head of a playwright program said to me was “Sarah Kane.” I know that a lot of young writers around the world were much influenced by her. I remember her German agent said that young writers around the world have come down with a “Sarah Kane complex”—a suicide complex. Sometimes I think it was more extraordinary outside of England than inside. She was so unique, she was an influence for writers who came after her. As she was influenced by some earlier writers. As a student, she did a production of Woyzeck. She was influenced by Georg Büchner, I think. But of course, the playwright Edward Bond, who was a great fan of hers too. In return, he became influenced by her, I think. Then Shakespeare. I mean her work is so Shakespearian. She was a pure writer, she knew the authors who went before. But I think in the end she spoke with her own voice.

Also see the livestream of a conversation about Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis with Elyse Dodgson of The Royal Court Theatre, London and director Alexander Zeldovich at the Stanislavsky Electrotheatre in Moscow that was held Sunday, October 9, 2016.

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I'm interested in these exercises that Kane used to write. Are there any sources where one can research them, or a link to your workshops?

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