Theatre Review: 4.48 Psychosis (Lyric Hammersmith)

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4.48 Psychosis
Lyric Theatre
By Sarah Kane, adapted by Philip Venables
Directed by Ted Huffman

Reviewer: Tom Baker

The text of Sarah Kane’s final play does not specify setting, stage directions, or even characters. The freeform passages of 4.48 Psychosis explore the despairing dialogue of a clinically depressed mind, and has therefore been performed variously as a three-hander (as on its debut at the Royal Court, a year after Kane’s suicide), a monologue, and now as an opera, in which it may have found its most surprisingly suitable and effective form.

Adapted by British composer Philip Venables, this Royal Opera House commission was initially staged at the Lyric in 2016, and nominated for an Olivier the following year. Its return to the Hammersmith theatre in 2018 is its first revival, but hopefully not the last. The lack of a defined structure to Kane’s text makes it open to any number of interpretations, but opera turns out to be particularly well-suited to the tenor and content of the play. Understandably, given the subject matter, it’s a bleak, often hopeless piece, with emotions running the gamut of a complete absence of feeling to an intense desire to die. That’s an intense spectrum, and those are emotions of uncommon, uncomfortable size. They’re perfect for the over-the-top, melodramatic, yet deathly serious operatic style.

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Here, the stage is a clinical white space: it could be a doctor’s waiting room, a padded cell, or a purely abstract environment – a blank mental plane waiting to be filled with a rush of thoughts, feeling, memories, old wounds to be picked over. There are as many as six performers on stage at a time, Gweneth Ann-Rand being the nominal lead. It is she who leads the group in both movement and song. It is also she whose words are oftentimes smothered by other members of the ensemble, who is pinned down on the floor, in aggressive movements akin to both the physical restraint of a psychotic patient and the way mental illness can suppress the voice of even the most incisive of artists.

As this is an opera, a great deal of Kane’s words are sung, while London-based chamber orchestra Chroma provide a backing which recalls classical compositions as much as horror movie scores, the eerie terror of a Bernard Herrmann soundtrack, and the woozy ambiance of contemporary artists like Leyland Kirby. The performers on stage at times appear to be in dialogue with one another as they sing. At other times, they provide a backing to Ann-Rand’s lead. Still others, they sing as one polyphonic group. In these latter moments, it’s as of the contradictory pieces of the warring psyche have become momentarily lucid, “as all thoughts unite in an instant accord,” a moment the play compares disturbingly to the image of cockroaches skittering together from the light of a doorway being opened.

At times Kane’s words are also projected in large, white, Helvetica on the walls. Pre-recorded monologues come on over the house speakers, sounding as if they were recorded furtively on a handheld tape deck, perhaps smuggled into a psychiatric unit. Sections which are written like exchanges between a doctor and a patient — but could also be read as the back-and-forth between the “rational” and “irrational” parts of a psychotic mind — are not spoken at all, but are projected word-by-word in time to a “conversation” between various forms of Tom Waits-esque percussion (a hammer primly striking a metal bar, a log of wood being sawn) and a thumping drum.

The orchestra is visible atop the stage, adding moments of gallows humour (as with the unusual instrumentation and comic timing of the sounds/projections) while also being an almost malevolent presence. It’s as if these half-concealed spectres in black play a part in the mental torment of the performers below. And if they’re not, well, they’re certainly not doing anything to help.

4.48 Psychosis will not be for everyone. Upon its premiere, Michael Billington famously wondered “how on earth do you award aesthetic points to a 75-minute suicide note?” It is difficult to watch, even with the moments of bleak humour which you greet with not so much a sigh of relief as a desperate gulp of air before sinking back beneath the water, even if you aren’t aware that the aftermath of writing this deeply autobiographical play saw Kane taking her own life. It should be difficult to watch.

Yet it’s a piece that, like much of her work, demands to be seen. Not only due to the seriousness of its content, but because it so lyrically and perceptively gives a voice to the bleak thoughts that trouble a clinically depressed person in the early hours of the morning. It’s a voice that is often prone to melodrama or exaggeration, that is unfair, that is unreasonable, that is desperately sad even when it’s hard to love. One of the most wrenching moments sees the “conversing” instruments attempting to reconcile their views on “why” people self-harm, a conversation that leads nowhere, as it proves impossible to explain the actions of an depressive mind to a more balanced, healthy one.

Perhaps 4.48 Psychosis may suffer a similar fate. Those not already acquainted with depression may find it hard to wrap their head around its foibles, its twisted logic, its melodrama, the moments where it dulls feeling, its pure self-destructiveness. If they do struggle, it is not by any fault of Kane, Venables, nor the ensemble. By translating this complex, nuanced and at times over-the-top text into the grand, emotive style of the opera the composer, director Ted Huffman, the performers, and Chroma may have gotten the closest it’s possible to get with externalising such intense and ultimately unsayable internal tumult.

Runs until: May 4th 2018 at the Lyric Theatre