"4:48 Psychosis" presented by Centre Stage.
Written by Sarah Kane.
Directed by Will Perrins.
With: Wamuka Anjeh, Anne-Claire Deseilligny, Rachel Donald, Addie Dutskinova, Anne Konrad, Fiona-Jayne Massie, Gordon Penny, Thomas Poulter Dunford, Laura Remmler, Caz Stevenson, Joanna Wilson.
I love Sarah Kane’s work. When I was at university, it was an ongoing joke that every year, someone would put on a performance of the first two scenes of her ground-breaking first play, Blasted, and I watched each version, shaking my head in sadness as it would never do the script justice. Kane’s ability to take what should, on the outset, be so shocking that it would be something Jackson Pollock would shy away from and turn it into a beautiful piece of poetic storytelling is to be admired, and it’s a shame that she left the drama world so soon in her career. Her earlier plays dealt with themes of rape, incest, war, violence and eye-sucking. Her screenplay, Skin, is about a strange S&M relationship between a white racist and his sadistic black lover.
Then came her final two plays: Crave and 4:48 Psychosis.
Crave took a detour from her earlier work, which was peppered with her trademark violence and sometimes absurd stage directions, and removed them entirely. The characters do not even have names. 4:48 Psychosis took this one step further by removing the characters entirely. The whole script is a rambling set of words, rants, numbers, repetitions and stories. It is from this pile of broken things that Centre Stage, a University of Aberdeen theatre company, staged the show in The Tunnels in Aberdeen on Monday 16th May 2011 and where I saw it. And did it live up to my expectations or fall short like all those Blasted productions in university? Well…
Let me first state that as a secondary Drama teacher, I am used to crap. I did not see crap tonight.
Let me secondly state that as a secondary Drama teacher, I am used to screaming at pupils who refuse to behave during a performance. I did not do that tonight, but Christ I was close.
In order to explain this, I must contextualise the event: whilst waiting outside for The Tunnels to become ready to receive it’s willing audience, I was lucky enough to glimpse some of the actors having a smoke outside. That’s cool, it’s a student event, it’s an amateur production, it’s nice that they’re mixing with the audience. However, when we were finally being admitted into the cosy room to take our seats, one of the actors, dressed all in white and barefoot, was led out, shaking, by the front-of-house manager and director, Will Perrins, who led him away.
Now, normally I’d assume that the young fellow was in character, and that this was part of the act, and that’s cool, I like to be part of a “happening”. When we were taking our seats, some of the actors were scattered about the audience in seats, dressed all in black. That’s cool, too, we’re immersed in the drama, we are no longer looking at a slice of life through the fourth wall. However, the actors in the audience conversed with other audience members who happened to be their friends. This was all happening after we saw a member of the cast, in character, being led away. This jarred with me.
Then it dawned on me: the actor led away had not been in character at all and had, instead, just had an awful vomitous attack of the pre-show nerves. The poor dear! I felt bad. It was crippling.
When the show started, said male actor made his way from the back of the audience, still jittery and in character. My initial assumption was correct! He was in character! He didn’t have disabling pre-show nerves! I didn’t feel bad!
Instead, I was left with this dislocated feeling. I had been subject to some sort of drama sandwich. A dramwich, if you will. Great in-character moment followed by ten minutes of out-of-character banter followed by an hour of in-character action. My God.
If there’s one thing you learn as a follower of drama, especially risk-taking experimental drama, that’s to assume that everything is done on purpose. I have seen many moments on stage where actors forget lines, have a hissy fit or otherwise die on stage, only to realise that it was all part of the act and we were meant to feel uncomfortable. I’m going to assume that this was one of those.
But on with the show.
As stated before, 4:48 Psychosis is a play that has no characters, stage directions or discernible plot. It is just words. It is then very exciting to see these words split between eleven actors to create believable characters.
The aforementioned jittery actor played a nameless male patient at an asylum of sorts, and he was joined by two females in similar positions, all dressed in white. Each patient had a shadow of sorts, dressed all in grey, who conversed with them, representing their psyche and warped mind. The four ladies who sat in the audience, dressed in black joined the three pairs on stage, forming a chorus of internal voices that was shared amongst each patient (which, offhand, probably represented the mind-numbing cocktail of drugs that the trio were subjected to). The eleventh member of the cast was a well-dressed therapist, the only member to specifically speak to each of the patients.
To say that the play had a plot would be pushing it. The actors did an amazing job of giving the audience a trip around each characters’ brain and giving a sneak preview into the internal workings of the depressed, suicidal and insane minds of the three patients, but there was no plot to speak of. Instead, the characters see-sawed from moments of screaming raw manic anxiety to soft, whispered calm. Indeed, the reasons for the patients’ depression or details of their treatments are rarely discussed. Instead, we are shown symptoms of their diseased minds. Self-harm, suicidal tendencies, psychotic delusions, psychopathy and blurred memories of past lives are roared, wept and sang to the audience and each other, as well as beautiful images of isolation and depression. One of the lines is particularly jarring: “Lying there as your partner sleeps.”
The plot isn’t really important either, as we are shown a slideshow of the characters’ lives. They wake, talk, drug themselves and sleep. The hours and days blend together into one long stream of horror that doesn’t cure them of their illnesses, but instead reaffirms their hatred of their own existences and amplifies the choral voices of the girls in black who circle them and push ideas into their heads.
The chorus stand out as a paragon of self-control and discipline. As actors, their performances were outstanding and they moved completely in sync. Your focus is naturally drawn to the patients and sometimes you forget the bodies moving seamlessly between them. Similarly, each patients’ psyche deserves similar praise, freezing and moving with the patients with such ease that you would assume that they are, literally, shadows of each other.
Only the therapist character has been left out of this praise, though he certainly deserves it. The character is played with such a bored, smug, hateful grace that even though his words make sense, they can’t help come across as sharp and biting. When a character displays her razor cuts from self-harm, he dismisses them as juvenile attempts to seek attention when you really just want him to offer help. He seems to be antagonistic and sadistic more than anything, which helps define his character near the end when he has a tiny breakdown in front of a patient, showing that everyone in this piece is affected by the terror of existence.
After the show, I had the chance to thank the performers for putting on such a powerful show. Beginnings aside, I enjoyed it, as I’m sure others in the audience did to. Did it live up to Kane’s original script? I am undecided if anything can, but this production was certainly in the running.