Playwright Sarah Kane killed herself at the age of 28 shortly after writing her fifth play, which offers a harrowing taste of what it’s like to live with, and die from, depression. Now two decades later, composer Philip Venables has turned 4.48 Psychosis into an opera, and the Royal Opera of London has brought it to New York as part of the seventh annual Prototype Festival. The adaptation is remarkable in its fealty to Kane’s disturbing vision, and also adds a new dimension.
Kane, who is better known for her bleak and brutal plays Blasted and Cleansed, offered no clues how to stage 4.48 Psychosis, which looks on the page like a stream-of-consciousness poem, with no clear-cut characters or scenes. Director Ted Huffman employs six singers, but focuses on soprano Gweneth-Ann Rand as the depressed woman and mezzo Lucy Schaufer as her therapist(s.) The four other singers, dressed like Rand, are variously her doppelganger, fellow patients, hospital orderlies who restrain her.
Kane’s rhythmic sentences have been turned into songs – or, rather, persistent musical phrases, which reflect a frequent dip into the kind of language (self-hate, explosions of grief, random words, gibberish) that one might hear in the street from a homeless psychotic on a bad day.
But there are some moments of clarity. Indeed, the title (as we’re told in the show) is a reference to the time of night “when clarity visits” (and the precise time when Kane reportedly would wake up.)
Some of the sentences are also projected word by word onto the back of the set – a wall with three doors – each word accompanied by an emphatic drum beat from the percussionist, as if being stamped painfully into consciousness.
There are doctors’ notes about the patient, including a long list of medications, and what must count as sardonic commentary: “Patient discharged into the care of the community on arrival of acutely psychotic patient in emergency clinic in greater need of a hospital bed.” (How will the community care for a psychotic exactly?) Also: “I know it’s not my fault. You’ve told me that so often I’m beginning to think it is my fault.”
The sentences are also projected from the sessions between patient and therapist. They look silently at one another, the orchestra playing a haunting underscoring, as the brutal words get stamped above them:
Have you made any plans?
Take an overdose, slash my wrists then hang myself.
All those things together?
It couldn’t possibly be misconstrued as a cry for help.
Ninety minutes of this would be harder to take were it not for the music. This is not to say that it soothes the savagery, although there are moments when our attention is distracted from all the sorrow and futility — the show begins with the sort of sweet sounds a band might play from a gazebo; at one point, the music from the violin turns into the sound of a siren. The singers all have beautiful voices. But, more to the point, the music somehow provides a thread through the chaos, offering a blanket of rhythm and rhyme in the absence of reason.
4.48 Psychosis in on stage at the Baruch Performing Arts Center (55 Lexington Avenue, on 25th Street between Third and Lexington, New York, NY 10010) through January 12, 2019. Tickets and details
4.48 Psychosis . Composed by Philip Venables, Based on the play by Sarah Kane. Directed by Ted Huffman. Conducted by William Cole.Scenic and Costume Design by Hannah Clark. Lighting Design by D.M. Wood. Video Design by Pierre Martin Sound Design by Sound Intermedia. Featuring Gweneth-Ann Rand, Lucy Hall, Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price, Rachael Llyod, and Lucy Schaufer
Editor’s note: Sarah Kane’s play, 4.48 Psyshosis was seen in DC as part of the 2009 Capital Fringe Festival. Our review.