Review of ‘4.48 Psychosis the Opera’.

Last week I went with a friend to The Lyric theatre in Hammersmith to see 4.48 Psychosis the Opera, by Philip Venables – an adaptation of Sarah Kane’s play 4.48 Psychosis. For those who may not be familiar with Kane’s play, it is about a character/characters  who suffers/suffer from clinical depression. (There are no stage directions or characters listed) Suicide, self-harm and death are big themes in the play. But so is love – and the loss of it.

I first saw 4.48 Psychosis when it premiered at The Royal Court theatre shortly after Sarah’s death. I knew Sarah during the sixth form at school and would hang out with her in a small circle of friends, many of whom now identify as gay or lesbian. We were involved in numerous school plays together of which I have many fond memories. I then moved to Exeter to study Drama at Exeter University and a year later Sarah went to Bristol University. Some years later, we both ended up living in Brixton. And this was the last place where we met up, just the two of us, one evening in a pub. I remember the evening clearly – Sarah’s warmth and sharp wit and her genuine interest in my experience of Buddhist meditation. It was a shock when a mutual friend phoned to tell me Sarah had killed herself. And when I saw 4.48 Psychosis at The Royal Court in 2000, in the year following Sarah’s funeral, of course, it was very upsetting. In some respects, it did feel like a suicide note. But it was much more than this. It was an incredible piece of writing and the best production of the play I have seen so far.

But to return to 4.48 Psychosis The Opera. It was an all female cast comprising of six singers. Not long into the performance it struck me that Opera is a great medium for Sarah Kane’s play. Opera naturally deals with extreme emotions and experiences – death and the loss of love being two of them. In addition there is a real strong sense of rhythm to the language in the play which naturally lends itself to some kind of musical rendition.There are also references to rhythm and singing in the actual text:

‘I sing without hope on the boundary.’

‘I shall hang myself to the sound of my lover’s breathing.’

And the actual text (or most of it) from Kane’s play is projected above the stage and also  onto the white walls of the set. I thought this worked particularly well, in part because Kane’s writing, which fluctuates between naturalistic and heightened poetic expression, is so exquisite and carefully crafted. As a writer, having the text to read throughout the play, made me realise yet again what a multiplicity of voices there are in 4.48 Psychosis. And how, in this regard it is very postmodern. The text includes Biblical references, lists concerning medication, lists of numbers, poetic passages, expanded definitions of words etc. There are also echoes from classical texts such as T S Eliot’s The Wasteland.

The musicians from the orchestra were positioned above the stage which inverted the usual convention and was all the more effective and powerful for it. Drums, hammers, and even a saw cutting through wood, served to reinforce the despair and anguish which are at the heart of the play. At other times, the music served to highlight the ineffectual and at times damaging role that the psychiatric system itself plays in mental illness. But I think the most disturbing music in the piece was the intermittent sound of what sounded like piped supermarket/elevator music. This was quite ‘Brechtian’ in the sense that it distanced you intermittently from the emotional content of the play.

I think it’s important that a play like 4.48 Psychosis, in the right hands, is adapted. (It takes a brave soul and artist to reveal/shine the light on a dark and difficult aspect of what it means to be human.) Kane herself said that she didn’t want any of her plays to become museum pieces. 4.48 Psychosis the Opera remained true to the essence of the play but came to it from a highly creative and interesting angle.

I leave you with two short extracts from the play which convey why, for me, this is a play just as much about love, or the loss of love:

‘Cut out my tongue

tear out my hair

cut off my limbs but leave me my love

I would rather have lost my legs

pulled out my teeth

gouged out my eyes

than lost my love.’

‘It is myself I have never met, whose face is pasted on the underside of my mind.’




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