By Katie Sharp
Renowned for being a script not touched with a bargepole by even the most experienced of directors, the announcement that Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis was to be the Week 4 Barn show left me apprehensive, yet nervously hopeful that the outcome of this daring choice would be well received. Kane’s originally ‘free-form’ play contains no directly explicit characters, narrative or stage directions, and explores themes of severe depression, mania, psychosis and abuse; it subjectively delves into the mind of what could be described as an individual’s experience surrounding the human psyche. Kane uses scattered, fragmented and brutally truthful poetic language to create unsettling and extremist imagery, which traditionally leaves audiences feeling unsettled and questioning their moral norms. It was after leaving the Barn that any shadow of doubt I once had about the production’s success disappeared from my mind. Overall, I was left impressed by both the sheer talent all six actors possessed and how developed and detailed Corner’s direction was, especially for such a challenging play.
Straying away from the stereotypical Artaudian influence that many amateur productions tend to lean towards when tackling Kane’s provocative ‘In-Yer-Face’ theatre, Corner’s direction softly and poignantly conveys a meaningful narrative through carefully considered character development. She divides the play into six well thought out characters: five patients with differentiated mental illnesses, and their doctor, following each character’s individual (and at times overlapping) battle with their own minds. Corner manages to truly humanise each character as an individual, and it is through this characterisation that every actor’s performance feels real and harrowing to watch. Each character is given a clear function, illness and most importantly an actual personality, not only giving the performance a wide overview of different mental health issues, but made the characters easier to sympathise with; something which is especially important when tackling such a vast and sensitive topic as mental health. This more flexible response to a script sometimes deemed inaccessible to many audiences helps to remove its inaccessibility, as it gives the audience something to relate to. It also successfully solved major staging dilemmas, for example turning the dreaded ‘numbers’ scene (in which one section of the script is just a list of random numbers) into a group therapy session with the doctor. There were some physical theatre elements to the piece, as expected, and although they did at times feel slightly cliché, did not feel at all jarring with the wider themes of the production and were still interesting to watch.
To an unsuspecting audience member, the inexistence of a narrative within the script would go unnoticed. There were only a couple of minor points where I felt the devised narrative was not entirely cohesive with the script itself, as the meanings of specific extracts were swept away by the demands of the narrative. Despite Emma Whitworth’s superb acting within the role she was given, her character was mostly comprised of devising songs from chunks of Kane’s text and reading them aloud. I felt the meaning behind many of these extracts could have been explored a lot more than they were, and although her character could possibly be alluding to the inability to express emotion other than through song, often the meaning behind words was lost because they were read out rather than spoken. Similarly, the choice to sing specific extracts, despite working well with the overall atmosphere of the piece, its specific function remained ambiguous. At times they were difficult to hear above the overwhelming swell of music and intentionally discordant harmonising, especially when the actors faced upstage. I was unsure whether the meaning behind the lines would be taken in by someone unfamiliar with the script.
What made the performance most memorable was the acting skill the entire cast demonstrated with such an emotionally consuming text, giving realistic, compelling and unique performances. All six actors managed to cover a vast range of emotions, problems and personalities between them: the sarcastic and cold, the anxiety ridden psychotic, the angry and emotionally frozen, the depressed and closed off writer, and the insecure comic. Leo Clasen gives a brilliant performance as the doctor ‘James Huxley’, who is the only character specifically named in this adaptation. Clasen’s character is centred around the idea that mental health problems can happen to anyone, even a doctor. The transgressions of his character and his relationships with his patients were particularly poignant and stuck with me well after leaving the barn. Ellie Ward on the other hand, refreshingly adds comic elements to her character; much-needed glimmers of hope in what is devised as a dark complex relationship between herself and her songwriter lover, played by the wonderful Emma Whitworth.
Overall I feel that Corner successfully and beautifully manages to take a script, one that is often categorised as overplayed and exaggeratedly performed and turn it into something with a truly poignant meaning. Kane’s original script is often described as a suicide note in the form of a sixty-minute play, as by the time the play was to be performed for the first time, she had already committed suicide. This leaves some theatre-makers apprehensive about adding any concrete characters, in fear of disrespect. I feel that Corner did the opposite; Kane wanted her play to be performed, and if anything good can be taken from sixty minutes of harrowing depression, it is connecting people with each other, while making them aware of mental illness and what it can do.
4.48 Psychosis is to be performed in the Drama Barn this Friday, Saturday and Sunday @ 7:30pm. Please be sure to donate to SANE, the wonderful mental health charity the performance is supporting. Charity boxes will be available after the production, or during their poetry reading charity night, which will be held on the 24th of October @ 8:30pm in The Lounge UoY Campus bar.