Inside Sarah Kane’s ‘Skin’

Sarah Kane

Sarah Kane

Skin is Sarah Kane’s only foray into film during her short lifetime and was released only a few months after her first play, Blasted, debuted in January of 1995.  The film stars Ewen Bremner, who is perhaps best known for his role as Spud in the film adaptation of Irvine Welsh‘s Trainspotting, though he has been featured in a number of films.  The teleplay is short, but it is densely packed.  As is the case with much of Kane’s work, the film deals with how oppression, stemming from prejudice based on perceived race, serves to warp concepts of love.  Though the teleplay is effective in raising questions, it employs overt iconography associated with ‘racism’ and often ‘tells’ more than it ‘shows’, or perhaps seeks to ‘show’ too blatantly.

 

Phillis Wheatley

Phillis Wheatley

The protagonist, Billy Boy, is a member of an Aryan group of skinheads who meet up for breakfast before heading off to a wedding where a Black bride and white groom are set to be married.  The group initiates a fight and causes what the viewer might assume to be  fatal damage, before fleeing.  The fight scene serves an important point when it is contrasted with other acts of overt prejudice.  In the opening scene, Billy Boy looks out his window at Neville, an older Black man who also lives in Billy Boy’s building.  When Billy Boy points at him threateningly, rather than responding in kind, Neville turns to his garden and works on his plants, doing something productive rather than facilitating Billy Boy’s hatred.  Billy Boy then looks across the street and sees Marcia, a young Black woman, who lives in a flat across the street, and make a lewd gesture toward her.  Rather than reacting, she simply smiles.  The same happens at breakfast when Billy Boy sees a young Black boy walking past the diner’s window.  Billy Boy flashes the boy a swastika which Billy Boy has drawn on his hand, but the boy, far from being intimidated, simply laughs at Billy Boy and continues walking.  In each of these instances Billy Boy seeks to invoke a response, or initiate a confrontation, but none of the Black people he engages with cares to facilitate this hatred.  They kill it with kindness instead.  It is only in the scene at the wedding, when members of the wedding party are physically attacked, that members of the Black community take action.  It is only in self-defence that they feel the need to respond.  This is important because it demonstrates that human nature, at least how Kane sees it, is to avoid conflict and laugh at the absurdity of prejudices, rather than respond to them.  This laughter in the face of bigotry also demonstrates a degree of progress.  In the past, when people of colour were presumed inferior, many felt the need to challenge this idea of inequality.  From Frederick Douglass, to Phillis Wheatley, to Richard Wright, countless people of colour have felt the need to prove their intellectual worth.  In Kane’s work, it is not the people of colour who must defend themselves, however, but the bigot.  Billy Boy makes clear his prejudice at every opportunity, but is met only with laughter, demonstrating that he is the one who needs to validate his own significance, if he is to avoid derision.

 

 

Ewen Bremner, who plays Billy Boy.

Ewen Bremner, who plays Billy Boy.

Though the message of the text seems overt, there are more subtle nuances.  For instance, when Billy Boy sits down to eat breakfast, he has a plate of sausage pushed in front of him.  He sees the sausages and proceeds to describe their insides: “Brain and bollock, innard and eyelid, toenail and teeth”.  It is at this moment that one of his Aryan brothers spits out his sausage.  This may seem crass and akin to toilet humour, but it does demonstrate that the perspective on which the Aryan brothers base their hate of people of colour is not the thinking they apply to their day-to-day life.  It is not the outside of the sausage, which looks appealing enough to the Aryan brothers, that determines the value of the sausage, but that which is inside.  This idea reappears in the final passage, where Billy Boy, after trying to overdose on pills and alcohol, is rescued by Neville and taken to the bathroom to throw up.  Neville pats him on the back and says: “That’s it son, better out than in, you’re all right.”  First, it is important to note that when his life is in danger, it is not his Aryan brothers that rescue him, but a man of colour. Neville’s words are equally important.  He says, ‘better out than in’, which applies in two ways to Billy Boy.  Being white, he is better on the outside than on the inside.  White is associated with purity, and he is young, so his appearance is not displeasing, but the content of his character is another matter, thus it is better out than in.

 

Ewen Bremner in a scene from Skin.

Ewen Bremner in a scene from Skin.

Perhaps the most important passage of the film is when Billy Boy crosses the colour boundaries prescribed by his Aryan brothers and seeks out Marcia, the woman of colour who lives across the street, as a lover.  Their first meeting quickly becomes sexual and when Billy Boy tells her that her skin is soft, she asks him if he had ever touched the skin of a Black woman before.  His answer is: “Only with a baseball bat.”  Their time together is chopped up into fragments.  We see the devolution of their time together, but we do not see the incremental steps that lead to Billy Boy’s debasement.  He is tied up, and fed dog food, and branded with Marcia’s name, which she engraves in his back with a knife.  He is then dressed up in her clothes and emasculated before finally leaving when Marcia rejects him.  It is a complete role reversal.  Billy Boy goes through all the steps of oppression endured by the people with African heritage, from being tied up, to being poorly fed and branded as the many Africans were, to a parody of the minstrel shows continued well into the 20th century.  Marcia is almost like a psychiatrist giving Billy Boy some sort of ‘white guilttherapy.  The most important part of the scene is not in the brutality that Marcia thrusts on the willing Billy Boy, but in their dialogue.  When she finally asks him to leave, he asks her: “Why don’t you like me?”  She responds: “Why don’t you like me?”  Both of their questions go unanswered.  Marcia answers his question with her own question, demonstrating that her presumed dislike is contingent on his prejudicial attitudes toward people of colour.  This reinforces the nature of the interactions of the teleplay.  It is not the people of colour who have to defeat prejudices, but bigots who have define the reasons for their adoption of stereotypes.  What is the basis of their prejudice?  Billy Boy does not have an answer to offer and so we see that such prejudice has neither reason nor logic.  Though Marcia does reject Billy Boy in the end, she does not reject white people as we see that she has a lover who is white at the conclusion of the teleplay.

 

 

Yemi Ajibade, who plays Neville.

Yemi Ajibade, who plays Neville.

Despite all, of all Kane’s work, this is perhaps her most optimistic.  At the end we see that Marcia’s love is not warped by prejudice and that she is capable of sharing an intimate moment with a white person.  Billy Boy seems to become aware of the flaws inherent in his prejudice.  Neville demonstrates forgiveness and kindness in helping Billy Boy recover, while the absence of the Aryan brothers during Billy Boy’s attempted suicide demonstrates a lack of loyalty and emotive connectivity on the part of people who embrace hatred and prejudice.  There are parts of the teleplay that are too obvious.  The swastika on Billy Boy’s hand, for example, or the fact that Billy Boy dons the overt appearance of a skinhead.  In such instances prejudice is easily identifiable and it is, perhaps, not this easily recognizable prejudice that is the biggest problem, but the covert prejudices that society embraces and quietly accepts.  In this way the work seems almost like something written by a high school student anxious to say something important about ‘race’, but there are other aspects of the play which clearly demonstrate that the words were written by an intuitive person with a unique vision who is able to see that love can grow in the cruelest environments.  The teleplay is a great piece of writing. The production, though perhaps a bit too farcical, it worth watching (it is included below), but I do feel that the almost comical tone which Bremner employs detracts from the work a little.

 

If you are interested in other works by Sarah Kane, read my review of her plays Blasted, Phaedra’s Love, Cleansed, Crave, and Psychosis 4.48.

Rambler About Rambler

Jason John Horn is a writer and critic who recently completed his Master's in English Literature at the University of Windsor. He has composed a play, a novella and a number of short stories and satirical essays.

Speak Your Mind

*

css.php