Sarah Kane is often compared with Samuel Beckett. One crucial difference between the two is that where Beckett’s plays are rigidly prescriptive in terms of their staging, Sarah Kane’s later work offers the exact reverse; absolutely no clue is given as to how either 4.48 Psychosis, or her earlier play Crave, should look or behave on stage.
With 4.48, there is not even a specified number in the cast, or a direct attribution of lines to speakers. In the text, a simple dash denotes when a new speaker takes over from the previous one, meaning that the play has a minimum cast of two, and a maximum cast as large as the number of lines in the play. This total open-endedness can be an gift to a talented director and the undoing of a lesser one.
Daniel Goldman’s critically acclaimed production at the Arcola, transferred after a recent successful run at the Old Red Lion, offers a success to failure ratio of roughly 1.4:1. In this hour-and-a-half-long performance, there is just under an hour of excellent work and more than half an hour of frustrating mis-fires, hackneyed concepts, muddled staging and ideas which either don’t work, or don’t fit.
The production, which launches the Arcola’s new studio space, makes good use of this claustrophobic little room in which the audience sits on three sides, in two rows, virtually tipped onto its small stage and at pains to keep from accidentally kicking a performer when they stray too close. The playing area has been painted a brilliant white, and the production is lit with rows of the sort of strip-lighting generally found in places like office toilets, student kitchens, or hospitals for the mentally ill.
Setting the text in a heightened distillation of an antiseptic clinical space could easily come across as crude. The identical white t-shirt and trouser costumes worn by the six performers are indeed suggestive of both the patients and doctors or nurses of such institutions. But with the strong non-naturalistic tendencies of the script, this white room can easily be re-imagined as a kind of ‘nowhere space,’ the inside of a mind, or some kind of afterlife. The fluid direction and changing performance styles utilised certainly encourage this sort of interpretative fecundity.
Interpretative free-fall is all well and good, but there are times when it feels as if the play is being subjected to a theatrical equivalent of the game One Song to the Tune of Another. So we see: Greek Tragedy 4.48, Naturalistic 4.48, Frantic Assembly 4.48, Church Service 4.48 and TV Gameshow Pastiche 4.48. This style of cycling through modern genre after modern genre is nothing new, used most notably in Martin Crimp’s 1997 postmodern masterpiece Attempts on Her Life - a text which has clear influences on 4.48. However, in Attempts the postmodernity is not only written into the script, it is central to the meaning. In 4.48 it is not an integral part of the script. That said, when the genre-pastiche marries well with the text, as a way through this notoriously difficult-to-stage text, it works brilliantly, setting up unexpected resonances between the meaning and poetry of the script, while adding an extra, critical dimension to our understanding of the play and the world it inhabits.
Similarly, the use of the six-strong cast as a chorus has mixed results. When simply speaking parts of the text in unison, the sound, although pleasant in itself, loses much of the meaning of what is being said in a battery of voices. By contrast this same battery, when married to the more staccato passages of text, produces an excellent effect of unexpected violence. While this is essentially ensemble work, some performances are more equal than others. Gehane Strehler in particular is outstanding, not least because she manages to create a sympathetic persona within some of the plays most potentially petulant and awkward speeches.
The very fact that companies continue to return to 4.48 Psychosis, and continue to find audiences for their productions, is a good indicator of how popular this play has become in its brief life. Part of the reason for that popularity lies in the endless reinventions of the staging, and the effect this has on our understanding of the fractured narratives which criss-cross the play, which resembles Eliot’s The Waste Land in terms both of style and of the sheer scale of the literary kleptomania. For example, this production is the first I have seen to have foregrounded the borrowings from CS Lewis’ Silver Chair sufficiently for them to be noticeable.
For one hour and twelve minutes I am in my right mind /…/ the foul magic of this engine of sorcery…
(p229, Sarah Kane, Complete Plays)
The play is a magpie’s nest of stolen phrases, which rewards re-watching again and again if only to try to spot them. There is always still some writing which rings false, or else fails to chime with a particular production, but this lack of a perfectibility could be another element to the play’s enduring appeal. Without seeking to be definitive, Tangram Theatre Company offer an intelligent, subjective reading of this complex play, with many successes and a few wrong turns.
Till 20 May 2006