British playwright Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis doesn’t look like an ordinary play, but instead more like pages torn from a suicidal woman’s diary. There are no character names in the margins of her raw and revealing exploration of depression, only fragmentary monologues, brief snatches of dark dialogue and even the occasional block of numbers.
Kane, who died in February 1999 shortly after finishing it, left it up to directors to decide how to stage her text, so it’s always interesting to see how they accept this challenge to co-authorship.
For Necessary Angel’s production, director Vikki Andersen picked up the scissors and glue and split Kane’s text among three characters. Stratford Festival’s Laura Condlln plays a clinically depressed woman; Bruce Godfree is her anguished and sometimes angry lover; and Raven Dauda appears as the members of the psychiatric and medical establishments who try to help.
Anderson’s choices and the silent scenes she inserts imbue 4.48 Psychosis with an astonishingly clear narrative. Indeed, a traditional, almost Aristotelian plot structure emerges: A woman tries to overcome her depression with therapy, drugs and love; she attempts suicide and fails; more drastic medical measures are taken leading to a temporary recovery and reconciliation; she finally succeeds in taking her life.
Condlln stays out of maudlin territory in a bravely unsympathetic performance – hers is a snarky suicide. She challenges those who care about her professionally and personally as she wanders off up and down a set of broken bleachers littered with wine bottles and pill bottles designed by Yannik Larivée. John Gzowski’s sound design adds to the unsettling atmosphere – at times, it sounds like there’s a rock concert going on beneath us, a perfect acoustic metaphor for depression, the feeling that there’s a party going on nearby and you’re not invited.
On one level, then, Andersen’s direction works well and is quite effective. Ultimately, however, I felt her decisions made the play too literal and so limited its poetic sprawl.
Handing Godfree the text’s hurt lines about unrequited or rejected love – for instance, cursing God for “making me love a person who does not exist” – makes a certain surface sense. But it robs the Condlln’s character of depth and emotion, creating a romantic relationship where the ill and the healthy are only a sliver apart.
This also removes a queer element from the play. Indeed, in many ways, Anderson’s production takes a crooked play and makes it too straight – down to all the preppy sweaters, which visually reinforce the notion that depression is middle-class indulgence.
I appreciated that the director and cast weren’t afraid to explore the humorous corners of the show, and allow moments that were light. Having the play’s few references to God spoken as if by Southern preachers, however, was just about easy stereotypes. What do American fundamentalists have to do with either Kane or Canada?
Strong, confident choices are better than uncertain ones, however. I wonder what the experience of watching would have been like if I hadn’t been encumbered with preconceptions about Kane and her final play.
This review has been an experiment in talking about 4.48 Psychosis without mentioning that Kane hung herself shortly after completing it. I guess it’s been a failed experiment.