First produced in 2000, a year and a half after playwright Sarah Kane’s death, 4.48 Psychosis is a mesmerising and harrowing portrait of a mind at war with itself, whilst encompassing ideas about love, dependency, isolation, depression, and mental stability. In Kane’s own words, it is about “a psychotic breakdown and what happens to a person’s mind when the barriers which distinguish between reality… and imagination completely disappear.” Produced here by SUDS in their tiny Cellar Theatre, Kane’s play is an experiment in form, breaking down existing boundaries whilst making new ones which only stop where words do.
The first thing you notice is the darkness. As you arrive, you’re led into the theatre individually by one of the actors, and seated in a circle of milk crates. It’s a highly effective and deeply unsettling induction into a theatrical world, made all the more powerful by the way your eyes adjust to the change in light, as you think you see things in the darkness but aren’t sure; almost like you’re going deep inside your own head. The sound design adds to the unsettling atmosphere, a series of beeps and vocalised fragments, looped and repeated, echoing, whispered, distorted, a perfect accompaniment to Kane’s text.
I say text rather than script because of the way it is written. There are no characters, no set number of actors required, no allocated lines, no rules or guidelines other than what is printed on the page. Composed of twenty-four sections, it varies between rather naturalistic moments, and more abstract, compressed, streamofconsciousness segments which bend both the theatrical form and the experience of watching the piece. Because by the end of it, you’re not really watching it per se, but experiencing it; you’re right in there with the actors – a tremendously affecting Hannah Cox and Claudia Osborne – in the world of the play, in the semi-darkness. We’re never quite sure who the characters are, or even if they are characters; they could be a patient and a doctor, or two patients, or one patient, all or none of these all at once; likewise, we’re not quite sure where we are, but that is the whole point of Kane’s piece.
The lighting plays as much a part as the sound and the actors. In the darkness, anything bright is going to be used to great effect, but here light plays a more intangible role. A yellow square appears on the floor at times, as do pools of white light, thin blue light, harsh backlighting, spotlights, washes, each one contributing to Kane’s unsettling environment created entirely through words, rhythms, and repetition.
I am reminded at times of Tom Holloway’s beautiful Love Me Tender, where words seem to hang in the air, before great slabs of them fall around you. The robust and brutal nature of language as it cuts through any kind of artifice we personally erect in the process of experiencing theatre, cuts through it like a scalpel and peels back the layers to get at our mind and affect us. In the words of theatre critic Michael Billington, “it is the sheer disconnectedness of the suicide that Kane expresses so vividly.”
This is an assured, bold, and concise staging of Sarah Kane’s last and (perhaps) most personal play, and one of the most accomplished pieces of student theatre I have seen.