Review: 4:48 Psychosis ~ theatre notes

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Review: 4:48 Psychosis

4:48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane, directed by Alyson Campbell. With Richard Bligh, Olivia Connolly, Tom Davies and Suzette Williams. Red Stitch Actors Theatre, until July 26. Bookings: 9533 8082

Like Heiner Mueller’s 1977 play Hamletmachine, Sarah Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, at last having its Melbourne premiere at Red Stitch, is the kind of work that redefines the possibilities of language on a stage. Hamletmachine, most famously realised by Robert Wilson, is a six-page text in which Mueller’s political and psychological obsessions are given explosive expression through the traumatised figure of Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It’s a densely allusive, almost cubist text that at once expresses a deeply personal sense of despair and critiques the social conditions that produced it.

It has other suggestive connections to 4:48 Psychosis. "It became, more than ever anticipated," says Mueller, "a self-critique of the intellectual … It is the description of a petrified hope, an effort to articulate a despair so that it can be left behind. It certainly is a 'terminal point', I can’t continue in this way."

Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis, as is well known, was her last play: this vastly talented young writer hanged herself in 1999, at the age of 28. While Mueller went on to create other works – although Hamletmachine was the last play of its kind that he wrote – Kane reached both a personal and an artistic end point with this play. Contemplating it is rather like looking at Rothko’s final bleak canvases: it is impossible not to feel the weight of the artist’s suicide behind the work.

But an artist’s life is not the same as her work, and it’s unfair to conflate the two. For all its terrifying expressiveness, 4:48 Psychosis is a work of art, not a diary entry: it may be an expression of personal despair – written, perhaps, as Hamletmachine was, in an effort to leave it behind. But that is not why it matters as a work of art. What I find most terrifying about it is, in fact, how Kane manages to draw so rawly from her personal experience of mental illness and yet to frame it with an absolutely icy intellectual and aesthetic discipline. In this achievement – her ability to successfully objectify, critique and theatricalise her own pain – she is arguably only matched by Antonin Artaud.

Stylistically, 4:48 Psychosis is most certainly a "terminal point", the logical end of a continual stripping away of theatrical convention, in which she was influenced by artists like Howard Barker and his Theatre of Catastrophe and the plays of Caryl Churchill. Her first play, Blasted, scandalised theatrical London by conflating sexual violence with the extremities of civil war, physicalising on stage the traumatic wounds of the psyche. Its crudity is at once brilliant and shocking. And she continued through her tragically slim oeuvre of five plays to refine her aesthetic, questioning every aspect of the contemporary stage, until she reached the terminal point of 4:48 Psychosis: a text with no stage directions, no characters, no direction even of how many actors might perform it.

Some people question if it’s even a theatre text. A critic colleague claims that it’s a poem, a text that is whole on the page and doesn’t “demand to be performed”. For me, 4:48 Psychosis falls on the theatrical side of that shadowy divide that distinguishes a play from a poem, even while it sits uncomfortably close to the boundary: it’s definitely language that’s written to be voiced and physicalised in space. But there's no doubt that part of its radicality exists in how it brings modes of interior expressiveness to the stage that more traditionally live in the realm of the lyric poem.

Under Alyson Campbell’s direction, Red Stitch gives Melburnians their first chance to see this extraordinary text on stage. It’s a creditable production, intelligently staged with some excellent performers, but it left me with a nagging sense of disappointment. There’s no doubt that this is a difficult play to realise: again like Hamletmachine, which on its US premiere was judged a “dull monodrama” and was only fully realised when Robert Wilson got his hands on it, to experience its full power requires a production as radical as the writing.

Given that there’s no direction on who says the text, or how many actors might perform it, there have been a wide number of interpretations. In France it was performed as a monologue by Isabelle Huppert; the Royal Court used three actors. For this production, Campbell has distributed the text between four actors, Richard Bligh, Olivia Connolly, Tom Davies and Suzette Williams, perhaps calling on an anima/animus model of the human psyche.

Campbell has carefully ignored the possible division of the play into different “characters” – the psychiatrist, for instance, or several “I”s. While this deflects the possibility of turning the play into a more conventional drama in disguise, making all the voices interchangable splinters of a shattered psyche, it also has a curiously muffling effect on its emotional power. Most seriously, when the lines themselves are split, word by word, between different voices, it destroys the careful orchestrations of Kane’s linguistic rhythms: and I couldn’t see what these splintered lines added to the performance. The production’s most powerful moments are, in fact, where the actors are permitted monologic moments, when the rhythms of the language begin to exercise a fatal power.

Here psychosis is imagined as a place of unbearable cold and endless perspectives: the stage floor is covered with fake snow, which attaches to the performers’ clothes as the work progresses, and the set itself is a series of receding doors or frames, dwindling into an imagined distance. The actors perform a series of “scenes”, with pauses between each one, discovering an ingenious variety of physical correlatives for the language.

It is, as I said, a creditable attempt, and worth seeing for its serious and uncompromising realisation of Kane’s text. Strangely, given my reservations about Campbell's attack on Kane's rhythms, I suspect it is all too reverent of Kane’s poetry, too respectful of her language: this text might be traumatic and traumatised, but it is not, as it sometimes seems to be here, catatonically frozen. It is, in fact, a passionate struggle for life itself: and I wish I could have felt a little more of that passion.


parabasis said...

Hey, Alison!

Here's my question (having never seen the play)... how did they handle the sections of the play where the placement of the words graphically on the page feels essential? See, this is where I think your colleague who wants to claim 4.48 for poetry might be able to make a case (I'm thinking of the part where the #s are distributed like

1 7

etc... .obviously I don't have the text in front of me at my temp job).

Tony Adams said...

Interesting. I had never made a connection between 4.48 and hamletmachine. (which now seems ridiculously obvious once pointed out.

I had always wondered if there was any influence from Gao Xinjiang in the style, which of course is pure speculation on my part.

Alison Croggon said...

Tony, I haven't read Gao Xinjiang (shamefully, my ignorance of contemporary Chinese theatre is near total) so can't make any comment on that. It's always possible: I wonder if Kane knew of that writing?

Isaac - this production, near as I could tell, took the graphic layout, rightly I think, as rhythmic and temporal notation. Certainly in my own practice as a poet, that's what that endless fussing with lines on a page is about: the same way contemporary composers do weird things graphically to notate sounds that don't have traditional notation. In terms of a poem, the notation is for reading, ie, reading out loud. So I don't see why it should be any different in a play. Even more so, I guess.

Fwiw, I think poetry and plays are much more closely related than prose and plays. But I still think they're different. In a case like this, the differences are subtle, because the two forms are jammed so close together, but I do think they're telling. A colleague who's a poet maintains that 4:48 Psychosis is an unsuccessful text: what he complains about (certain crudities) are, in my view, precisely those things that make it a successful theatre text.

Tony Adams said...

If you find any time in what must be a ludicrously busy schedule, I'd recommend checking his work out. Judging from your reviews I've read,I think you'd like his work. I think he writes primarily in French now, at least that's how I came across his work. Theres a good English translation of The Other Shore and other plays, I think its published by the Chinese University Press.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks for the tip, Tony. I'll look him up.

alexf said...

hi parabasis

those sections with the numbers are (or are based on) serial sevens which is a test for mental function (

If i remember correctly (i don't have the text in front of me) the first time they appear it's in a pretty neat line and they correctly go down from 100 in sevens, the second time they're much more scattered and fail to go down in sevens - which means its about the speaker getting it wrong. Which doesn't negate the graphical element of the text, but does foreground the importance of a person speaking those words in an attempt to do something (which is a pretty neat definition of dramatic text).

i'm not saying that those words have to be spoken when they are dramatically presented (if i remember right in the royal court's premiere - which i didn't see but friends did - they stuck post its with the numbers on around the stage) but that they need to be conceived of as more than just a beautiful arrangement of numbers - they're pretty firmly rooted in situation. it's this kind of thing whic, for me, makes the text dramatic rather than poetic, if that distinction means anything.

alexf said...

that and the fact that it doesn't rhyme.

Alison Croggon said...

Thanks Alex, that's interesting. I always read those lines as an obssessive compulsive thing, so missed that subtlety of it being a test. I do think this production emphasised the poetic, or at least the presumed poetic, at the expense of the dramatic, making it more abstract than it needed to be.

And yes, the lack of rhyme is a dead giveaway. I agree with you about that other distinction, it's part of it, but not all of it. I'm kind of fudging around it because then people will start saying (or I would, anyway) well, what about Robert Browning? and other suchlike inconveniences...

For me, the language is immediately theatrical. I find it really hard to be more precise than that, (I've tried, you know, it sounds like rubbish) - maybe one day I'll find a way to articulate what I mean. Or I'll read someone smarter than me who knows hows to say it. Paging Chris Goode here, I expect. It's something to do with the difference between poetry of the theatre as opposed to poetry in the theatre.

Anonymous said...

Hi folks,

I saw Pork Chop's production of 4.48 Psychosis at The Stables in 2004 directed by Samantha Lang and performed by Gigi Edgley, Susie Lindeman and Terry Serio, and it was Great!

The numbers were scrawled on the black floor in chalk with Edgley speaking them at the same time which meant that the textual, vocal, testing (and failing) and obsessional qualities you've mentioned could all be expressed.

Edgley was fantastic as the main charater with Serio basically a doctor figure and Lindeman as a kind-of shadow, second, psychological self, an inner voice maybe (the women were dressed similarly). It was definitely theatrical and really moving.

Anyone else see this one?

Anonymous said...

I have a vague idea (possibly a false memory!) that the "count backwards in sevens" is something the suicidal are coaxed into doing. Like the (Buddhist?) technique of counting your breaths (very hard to do beyond five or six), it's a way of calming the soul and/or distracting oneself from Really Serious Shit depression.

Anonymous said...

"I have a vague idea (possibly a false memory!) that the "count backwards in sevens" is something the suicidal are coaxed into doing."

My memory was that that isn't quite right but that counting backwards by sevens was a psychological test for something or other. Here's something from the Wikipedia entry on "serial sevens" (not sure how accurate this is and don't have time just now to track down something more definitive):
Serial sevens, counting down from one hundred by sevens, is a clinical test used to test mental function; for example, to help assess mental status after possible head injury or in suspected cases of dementia.... On its own, the inability to perform 'serial sevens' is not diagnostic of any particular disorder or impairment, but is generally used as a quick and easy test of concentration and memory in any number of situations where clinicians suspect that these cognitive functions might be affected.

Anonymous said...

Counting backwards is a "complete distractor" in Cognitive Therapy for patients preoccupied with their own pain - physical and mental.

We teach specific distraction techniques to focus the mind on non-pain content. Counting backwards from 1000 in 13s and solving difficult puzzles are two of the best.

Jeff said...

Counting backwards is also used to determine whether a person's meds have taken hold. I begin rehearsals for a production of 4.48 in three weeks (I'm directing).