Chichester Festival Theatre - an extraordinary play for extraordinary times

Crave, Chichester Festival Theatre, until Saturday, November 7 (online only from Thursday, November 5).
Erin Doherty, Wendy Kweh and Alfred Enoch in CRAVE. Photo Marc Brenner.Erin Doherty, Wendy Kweh and Alfred Enoch in CRAVE. Photo Marc Brenner.
Erin Doherty, Wendy Kweh and Alfred Enoch in CRAVE. Photo Marc Brenner.

Extraordinary times demand an extraordinary play, and we certainly get it with Sarah Kane’s Crave on a night of huge sadness in Chichester.

Huge sadness because the autumn season is being forced to stop, having barely begun; huge sadness because everything about this rare visit to the theatre shouted just how meticulously and how efficiently the theatre had planned for our safety in every last detail.

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An excellent autumn season had been in prospect, full of pieces just right for the restrictions we thought we had to live with.

And now everything has changed.

The heart bleeds for the CFT and for all that been snatched away, not just from us and from the theatre but from all the performers too.

These are tough and brutally cruel times – which makes it a stroke of genius that Crave was the sole play salvaged from the wreckage of the summer season.

Yes, part of me wanted this rare night out to be a warm and cuddly laugh-a-minute treat – but on reflection, spurred on by watching Crave, it would have been wholly inappropriate to have served us up some tidy little play which packaged everything neatly and sent us home happy.

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The CFT opted for the far braver option, the far more exciting choice and gave us a piece which chillingly – and also beautifully – reflected the incomprehensible, awful times we are going through.

Kane is famously the playwright who lobbed a grenade into British theatre; the playwright who refuses to tamely feed us, insisting instead that we sit there and think.

The piece is baffling. She throws the whole of life at us, from heartrending tenderness to angry betrayal, from “couldn’t love you more” to “couldn’t love you less” in a world which swings from genuine love to the bleakest despair via everything else in between.

Rather like the world we are in, you struggle for connections, you try and fail to make sense of what is happening. And then you just go with it, pulled along by the rhythm of the delivery as four broken souls drop all pretence and spout their innermost emotions, occasionally – possibly – to each other, but mostly to themselves.

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Important to the effect is the fact that this is that rarest of things, a production to which backstage projections do actually add something. They are quite mesmerising as Erin Doherty, Alfred Enoch, Wendy Kweh and Jonathan Slinger assail us in a world without plot or even character, just the extremes of experience.

It’s also a world with very little hope… except in the night’s stand-out passage, a sublime description of love and longing delivered with total naturalness and complete persuasion by Jonathan Slinger. Spine-tingling stuff. Superb direction from Tinuke Craig.

And then in less than an hour, it’s all over… and we are ushered out, row by row, with extreme efficiency, leaving us to the realisation that after months and months of waiting, that’s all the theatre we are going to be getting for goodness knows how long. Does anyone really believe this lockdown is only going to be a month?

A sad evening indeed. But let’s all salute the theatre under Daniel Evans and Kathy Bourne’s excellent leadership. Eventually the odds were against them… but there is something heroic about the fact that they believed in theatre enough to offer us so much.