first night

4:48 Psychosis

Taking it too far? or one of the best productions this academic year? Bertie Gall reviews...

 Hild Bede Theatre Company


4:48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane is not what you expect from theatre. There are no characters, no stage directions and no plot, but […], the director, Hannah Brennan, has dealt with these difficulties with originality and sensitivity. She has the play begin before the audience is seated, with the lovers in place on the simple but effective platform bed which serves as a centre for much of the action. During the first few minutes the rest of the cast are revealed among the audience and continue to use audience members as props and objects of conversation. The background music is an incongruous but somehow chilling track of Louis Armstrong.

The script is very cleverly divided between cast members, roughly grouping certain kinds of statements together in a way which almost creates a sense of character. However, it is not simply done, and lines are allotted so as to give the effect of character development. For example, the figure who appears to be the doctor and who is consistent for much of the play breaks down towards the end until he is as much in need of help as everyone else. What is also effective is that the doctor’s words, in particular his report, are often recited by several cast members at once in an ironic tone which makes clear Kane’s lack of belief in the possibility of communication between doctor and patient.

Repetition is a key feature of the play and is used particularly well by Brennan. Usually it is a straightforward reappearance of such figures as ‘Hatch opens; stark light’ and ‘But you have friends’, but sometimes it involves significant variation, as in the line ‘But I like you’, which is first uttered by the lover in tones of genuine feeling, and later by the doctor by whom it is uncomfortably forced. Among the most moving moments for me are those in which one cast member reaches a frenzy at centre-stage while the rest scream at the audience, ‘Stop her! Why are you still sitting there?’ over and over again.

4:48 Psychosis comes dangerously close to the melodramatic and the absurd, but somehow it avoids these things. The performances are very well executed and sustained by all, and the variety of voices means that the audience is never allowed to lose attention. I heard one audience member say that she thought it was ‘just too much’, but the fact is that this is the product of the mind of a suicidal depressive. What is ‘too much’, then? Is it so bad to be challenged? A notice board in the entrance hall proclaimed that one in four people experiences some kind of mental illness, so it is not unlikely that someone in the room was able to associate on some level with the emotions being expressed.

What is powerful about this play is that for much of it there is such a sense of clairvoyance that we become convinced that the persona is saner than everyone around her. Everything is stated with an openness that removes the possibility of cliché, and there are several moments of wry good humour. There is confusion, but it seems to be presented highly self-consciously and often there is such detachment that it would be easy to believe that the play was written by a mere observer of depression. It was not, however. 4:48am is thought to have been the time at which Kane in her depression used to wake, and she committed suicide before the play was ever performed. 

Hannah Brennan’s direction has given character and progression to a script which lacks those things, but has not lost the desperate feeling of the play and the tragedy of being a person whom ‘nobody touches’. We feel deeply the irony of wanting to die in order to escape the fear of death, and are prompted to think seriously about the concept of blame. 4:48 Psychosis is effectively staged, powerfully acted and brilliantly interpreted; it is hardly an enjoyable experience, but nonetheless I highly recommend it.


* * * * - and a half


Bertie Gall


11 February 2012

The views expressed in the reviews and comments on this page are those of the reviewer, and are not representative of the views of DST or Durham University.
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