first night

4.48 Psychosis

Michael Shaw is gripped by Bailey Theatre Company's "4.48 Psychosis" in St John's Chapel.

5-7th March 2009

It's very difficult to review this show, not least because the play itself presents perhaps the most brutally honest depiction of clinical depression and suicide in literature.  It is, of course, much more challenging to actually stage it, because it requires such a huge level of commitment to the text in order to make it feel and sound authentic.  This seemed to me to be the greatest achievement of Bailey Theatre Company's 4.48 Psychosis (although there were many).  Emma Butler and Hannah Shand's Director's note stated that they hoped that the performance "might begin to open a discourse regarding mental illness in society."  It is tempting even here to attempt to expound the various themes developed in the play, especially so soon after such a hideously off-the-mark mental health awareness campaign around Durham (Creativity or Depression?), but that's not for now.

Although its author, Sarah Kane, committed suicide shortly after its completion, it would be wrong to pass off 4.48 Psychosis as merely a dramatised suicide note, because it is so much more than that.  A play with no cast specifications, scene divisions, and few lines divisions, nonetheless develops a chilling and lucid insight into the mind of a severely depressed writer.  This was in large part due to directors Emma Butler and Hannah Shand, whose interpretation of the writing was incredibly apt.  The script is poignantly poetic without sounding trite - any stereotypes of depression being primarily the realm of teenage angst are immediately shattered.  The use of imagery was so powerful that it demands the audience sit up and pay attention.  We did.

An average performance would have allowed the audience member to relax ever so slightly (and the reviewer to take notes).  But every aspect of the performance was so exceptional that it immersed the audience in the tragic and intimate thoughts of the playwright.  From the start I was made to feel uncomfortable.  Audience members arrived into St John's Chapel not to a closed curtain but to the sight of Rebecca Mackinnion, alone cross-legged on the floor, unnervingly still.  It was wonderfully awkward.  I felt like an intruder who had just stumbled across a delicate and private moment, and this feeling was to stay with me for the rest of the play.  All three actors in the show gave well accomplished performances, but it was Mackinnion who really stood out.  It is no exaggeration to say that this was her best performance in Durham, especially because it was one of the most challenging roles for any actress to play.  Her firm grasp of the character enabled her to convincingly portray the wide variety of emotions that come with the mental state of depression.  Ben Salter too, excelled in the supporting role of the Psychiatrist, bringing to the part a definitive humanity which contrasted well with Callum Cheatle's Doctor, who did well to exude just enough harsh professionalism without making the role a caricature.

Shand and Butler obviously had a clear vision of what Kane's writing was about, and there were some really beautiful sequences.  Especially effective was the contrast between the slick delivery and cold, clinical manner of Cheatle and Salter whilst circling Mackinnion's increasingly psychotic protagonist.  The blackout in which Salter and Cheatle's syncronised chants created an almost beatnik rhythm was also a very nice touch.  The blocking was simple and never obscured any of the action on the floor in the round, and the lighting was used well to create at times dynamic and striking tableaus.  The black and red ribbons symbolising death and blood were effective, but it would have been even better to see these used more (although you might argue it would then have made them less powerful as symbols).

This production paid tremendous tribute to Kane's vision of theatre, "If we can experience something through art, then we might be able to change our future, because experiences engrave lessons on our hearts through suffering, whereas speculation leaves us untouched."  By not giving the audience the option of speculation but rather absorbing them into it, the cast and production team made 4.48 Psychosis different to the vast majority of plays in Durham.  Its haunting and profound images will linger in the minds of many Durham students long after the production has ended its run; something that so rarely occurs in student theatre that it's refreshing and exciting when it does.

7 March 2009

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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