When I saw that 4.48 Psychosis was on at The Lyric in Hammersmith, I jumped at the chance to see it. When it was first there in 2016, I wasn’t in the country, and having studied the play for my university dissertation, I am always keen to view a new interpretation of the text (all those I’ve seen thus far haven’t warranted writing about).
For those who haven’t come across the play before, it was playwright Sarah Kane’s final play before her suicide in in 1999. For this reason, and that fact the its focus is on the experience of clinical depression, some, such as Michael Billington, have considered the text a kind of “ 75-minute suicide note”. However, it contains many truths that most people would be able to relate to, whether suffering from depression or not.
I found it fell into the usual trap of being over-acted, epitomized by the deep breaths alluding to a kind of panic attack
The text contains no set characters or stage directions, so it is very much open to interpretation in that sense. Even within this staging at The Lyric, I found it fell into the usual trap of being over-acted, epitomized by the deep breaths alluding to a kind of panic attack, when – to my memory – there is no reference to this in the script.
However, this criticism may come from my own reading of the text as somewhere between a poem and a monologue. The key lies in its honesty. This is why the sections of this production that struck me as most authentic and true to the intention of the text, of which it is impossible to say, are when we merely heard the amplified spoken voice.
The success of this production of 4.48 Psychosis was in these details, the elements which some may see as ‘additional’ to this version – those were the parts that made it a success for me. This also comes from someone for whom opera does not come naturally, and this particular staging of the play was an opera and, created by Philip Venables, the first musical adaptation of 4.48 Psychosis.
In the past, I have tried to listen to opera, have had the privilege of getting some cheap tickets through a youth scheme when I was younger, and even watched opera with family in its home, in Italy. Even without understanding the language, the latter was incredibly memorable, due to the dance, the rhythms, and the setting. But more generally, I just don’t click when it comes to opera.
the idea of a voice being alien coincides with this inability to articulate oneself and be understood
This production of 4.48 Psychosis did not necessarily change my view on opera, but in the programme, music writer John Fallas dubs it ‘a new kind of opera’ . For me, I still found the operatic voice quite alien and unnecessary. Yet, perhaps if there was ever a place for this use of voice, it is in a play like 4.48 Psychosis, in which the idea of a voice being alien coincides with this inability to articulate oneself and be understood.
Throughout the play, this inability to communicate is central to its expression. The finality of the death at the end illustrates again this failure of communication. The highlight of the production involves a conversation between patient and doctor in projected words, appearing to the sound of different percussion instruments. Projections showing the correct and incorrect countdown from 100 in sevens are met with the sound of buzzers and bells, with the programme stating the instrumental directions reading, ‘nasty fucked-up computer game music’.
Audience members laugh out loud at what is being projected, and as humour often comes out of an ability to relate, it seems that Kane’s work not only speaks truth about depression, but about the human experience as a whole.
When we read “there’s not a drug on earth can make life meaningful”, for most people, this must be true. We create our own meaning, and nobody is able to definitely pinpoint a unifying meaning of life. Though the text can be dense in terms of interpretation, this production allowed the audience to absorb a lot of the words in both text and sound, and in doing so, we were able to take something from it individually.
The subject matter, and the way Kane’s text deals with it, is brutal. Also a part of the concept of the Theatre of Cruelty, communicating a sense of pain and suffering through movement, sound and symbolism, rather than simply the language. Venables’ staging of 4.48 Psychosis is engaging and thought-provoking, and successful in its delivery of such an ineffable text.
Featured image © Stephen Cummiskey
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