Artists who work in the medium of pain should, as a matter of safety, keep their personal and professional lives separate. One imagines Dante – whose work this piece recalls , in unexpected ways – drinking a good red and gnawing on a leg of mutton while mulling whether to have Judas hang from Satan’s nose, or from his beard, in the center of his Inferno. Dante was not a happy man, but he kept his infernal gaze firmly, and fiercely, pointed outward.
That was not Sarah Kane’s game. Theater, if it is to be worth a damn, is an exercise in truth-telling, and there is not a moment of 4.48 Psychosis which is not radiant with authenticity. The protagonist (Sara Barker) stands before us in the dark night of the soul, surrounded by an army of fellow sufferers who are, in fact, all her. In a vomitous pool of self-loathing, they pronounce their dread judgments like mantras: “I’m a failure.” “I’m fat.” “I can’t write.” “I’m ugly.” “No one loves me.” She stares at her sleeping lover at twelve minutes to five in the morning, envying the easy breathing, and contemplates her own suicide. It is as if someone has stripped off her skin, and she stands before us all nerve and muscle, bleeding out her life.
It is a tone poem to despair, the cry of someone who is deeply, clinically depressed, but it is also something common to all of us. After all, who among us has not confronted one or more of these demons? Who among us has not dragged himself out of bed at 4.48 a.m., and wondered at how short he has fallen from his dreams or expectations? But the healthy person concludes that this vitriol laden judgment, while it may be true, is irrelevant. I may be a schmuck, he thinks, but I am still a child of God.
That, alas, was also not Sarah Kane’s game. Shortly after writing 4.48 Psychosis, she surrendered her body. She was twenty-eight.
Kane left few instructions about staging 4.48 Psychosis. She even left the size of the misery chorus up to the producing company. (The first production, staged more than a year after her death, used three actors). Director John Moletress here makes the brilliant decision to stage the play with ten actors. They are black and white, young and mature, male and female, British and American, as was Sarah Kane, as are we all.
The protagonist knows the way out of her misery, but does not know how to get there. She has someone who shares her bed but she has no one who shares, or even understands, her pain. Her instinctive struggle to end her aloneness is the story which weaves its way through this chorus of despair.
The protagonist is in a hospital, being treated, with a spectacular lack of success, for depression. (Her commentary on these efforts is full of surprising, macabre humor). Among the medicos who poke and prod her like an animal and fill her with chemicals, one doctor (Lisa Hodsoll) shows her something approaching a tough, dry affection. The protagonist grasps it like a lifeline, and when it comes time to leave the hospital (they have concluded that a newly-admitted violent psychotic needs her bed more than she does) she reaches out to her doctor in the hope of finding a deeper, more personal connection. I could tell you what happens next but I think you already know.
Moletress stages the play with the assistance of three television screens. Amusingly, commercials for antidepressants flutter across the screen as the protagonist suffers from the side effects of the antidepressants she has been prescribed. There is a frighteningly ambiguous recurring image which periodically creeps across the screen: in an otherwise empty hospital corridor, a man dressed in black walks across the screen and disappears. He could be a doctor at the end of his shift, or a thief looking for psychotropic drugs, or the devil, collecting souls.
The entire cast of this production is superb, but I particularly like Daniel Kenner, Karin Rosnizeck and Theodore M. Snead, each of whom gives the protagonist’s agony a different sort of voice. As for Barker, who has already won significant praise for her ability to portray disturbed young women in The House of Yes and This Storm Is What We Call Progress), it seems as if she is channeling Kane. Eyes wide with apprehension, face half a sneer and half a rictus of terror, she is the personification of someone who knows herself too well, and the saving grace of love not at all.
For the sad and chilling conclusion, Moletress drops the lights and lets us watch it on television, which is now where we prefer to learn about life. I hate to sound like a dumbstruck fumblemouth, but brothers and sisters, this is an awesome play, awesomely done. I cannot recall the futile run from the desert of the self more convincingly portrayed.
Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote, famously, that hell is other people. No it isn’t.