4.48 Psychosis, Sarah Kane’s final play, is a difficult play to approach, to stage and to review. It is a deeply affecting post-dramatic perspective of mental illness and the dangers of a broken mental-healthcare system. The text is presented more like poetry than a traditional play script, with words dripping across the page, dispersed sporadically amongst blank silence. There is no setting, no stage directions and no delineated characters, nothing but a long, dark shadow cast over the work by Kane’s own life story. The text is completely lucid; rich language, infused with violence and despair, and deep silences. It is all open to interpretation – any interpretation – and as such, the play forces each reader, each actor, each audience member to pour a little bit of themselves into the work just to make sense of it all. Therefore, as a disclaimer, I would like to say that it is difficult to review this show because it is naturally subjective and deeply personal. As an interpretation of Kane’s work, I did not enjoy this production, but others certainly might if it sits closer to their own reading of the text than it did mine. However, purely as a piece of theatre there were artistic and technical elements of this production that were simply ineffective and unengaging.
Directed by Kendall-Jane Rundle, this production of 4.48 Psychosis presents the text through four characters: Rundle herself plays the central figure battling severe depression, Jeff Wortman inhabits the doctor/lover/friend figure, and Alisha Eddy and Jessica Stevens appear as metaphysical representations of the play’s psychosis, as I understood it. While there were moments of fluidity between these roles, and shared moments of mania, this delineation held steady for the majority of the work. This split – between the two ‘real’ characters and the two metaphysical representations – is emblematic of the painful split between body and mind that drove much of Kane’s work (she once said ‘the split between one’s consciousness and one’s physical being, for me that’s what madness is about’).
However, in this production the rift between the two worlds was jarring in a way that drew you out of the world, rather than sucked you in. Eddy and Stevens inhabited the background of the piece, appearing on the fringes, upstage or under a table. They seemed dislocated from the words they were saying, often chanting slabs of text together or slightly out of sync, and performing choreographed movement. This mechanical, highly controlled style didn’t complement the relative naturalism of the ‘real’ characters nor the lucid text, and was often distracting. Eddy and Stevens had great timing, looking slick and in sync, but didn’t hit the demanding emotional heights of the language – the line ‘Shame shame shame drown in your f**king shame’ was delivered flatly, calmly, with a smile. Speaking in unison was overused and was mostly ineffectual as the poetry of the language was lost in favour of a forceful delivery. The line that embodies the split between the two worlds – ’it is myself I have never met, whose face is pasted on the underside of my mind’ – was delivered by all four actors slightly out of sync, which gave some sense of a person out of joint but ultimately rendered the line difficult to understand, the impact of the language lost.
This was at the heart of my inability to engage with this production: for me, the connection between the text and the actors and the production was not strong enough. The actors had a good sense of character, played their intentions with strength and confidence, but the language seemed to be an afterthought, an empty vessel for the story they wanted to tell. While this is a valid way to present this work, it left me disappointed. Kane’s writing is alive with a visceral, confronting energy; it is violent and unrelenting and spattered with silence, creating a cacophony that reveals a calm, logical, quiet resolution of loss at it centre: ‘sanity is found at the centre of convulsion, where madness is scorched from the bisected soul.’
In the script there is an unquenchable rage – talk of genocide and removal of eyeballs and a long section where the words punch, slash, burn, press are repeated again and again and again. This production did not engage with this desperate, violent anger. Despite the line ‘depression is anger’ in the opening moments of the show, this production was quiet and meek; outbursts seemed unearned, the pushing over of chairs an empty afterthought. Without this violence, there is nothing for the moments of calmness and clarity to push off and the entire production sinks into a lethargic melancholy that is, quite simply, not very engaging.
The section of repeated words really emphasized this for me. Punch. Dab. Flicker. Slash. These are textured words, similar to those in Laban’s Movement Analysis. They embody a movement, an intention, an energy, in the way they shape our mouth, affect our voice and our bodies. But they were delivered in this production in a swarm, a stampede, overwhelming. This is a valid interpretation, taking the language as affecting in its scale, but for me that does not reflect the power of Kane’s language, which is rhythmic, physical, ferocious, and insanely clever in the way it forces the mouth, the body, the mind to move.
There was no ebb and flow in pace and energy, which dulled the overall impact of the production, and the transitions between the ‘sections’ of the text were often jarring – stop-start, lights-down lights-up. There were some arresting moments of congruity, particularly as the cast swarmed across the stage together, but on a technical level the performances were lacking: Rundle and Wortman were too quiet, often inaudible. I would question a director taking on the lead role in any production but particularly a production that requires such emotional immersion, and especially with no assistant director. With dragging pace and projection and clarity a serious issue, the absence of an external creative, watching and shaping the production as it takes form, is very noticeable.
The set was minimal and satisfying, though I was disappointed that the collection of props left on the chair at the end eradicated the ambiguity of the final moments of Kane’s text. Shane Grant’s lighting design had moments of absolute genius, at times a striking manifestation of Kane’s text. A highlight was the brilliant transformation of a table into a TV. But sometimes its dynamism stood in stark, unnatural contrast to the action onstage and added to the jarring transitions between scenes.
4.48 Psychosis is an immensely important work, bringing a voice of mental illness to the stage. I applaud Bare Naked Theatre for taking a risk and staging this production, it is clear that Rundle and her team have poured a lot of heart and soul into it, a lot of themselves is there onstage. I didn’t engage with this interpretation of Kane’s work, but that is the beauty of the play – this interpretation is just as valid and valuable as any other.