Philip Venables’s opera of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis was absolutely breathtaking. Quite literally. As I left the theatre I felt myself take a deep breath – as if surfacing from water – such was the immersive and completely all-consuming nature of this piece of opera. Unlike Katie Mitchell’s production of Cleansed, this piece did not contain graphic violence and sexual content. What it did, however, was demonstrate the relentlessness of mental illness – the continuing pain and despair, the way it grinds the sufferer down until they see no logical way out.
The first thing which struck me about the performance was the sense of layering, which emphasised both the feeling of being overwhelmed and the sense of battling emotions . The choice to have an all-women cast of six (Kane does not state how many characters the play contains) enabled this layering to be executed beautifully. The performers’ voices layered over each other – in the form of harmonies, vocal interruptions and shouting matches – to create the sense of multiplicity so central to Kane’s depiction of mental illness. At times the cast became like a Greek chorus, coming together as one soaring force to cast judgement on the patient figure, and at others they were divided and at war. This layering was also brought to life physically on stage. On the stark white walls of what looked like a psychiatrist’s office, the shadows of the performers loomed over their bodies, creating a doubleness which emphasises Kane’s idea that “Body and soul can never be married”.
Music is of course central to an opera, and in Venables’s production he uses it to echo the sense of discordance which Kane expresses in her work. The jangling, uncomfortable sounds which jarred, and the surging music which brought everything to crisis point both plunged the audience into the world of the patient. And as opposed to the background metallic grindings heard in Cleansed, Venables used piped background music to fill the silences in the play. This horribly “inoffensive” muzak that one might well find in a doctor’s waiting room put the raw emotion of the performers into stark perspective and became upsetting in its complete incongruity. The use of “non-sound”, as it were, was also used effectively as the performers sang with their hands clapped over their mouths, creating a muffled, strangled sound echoing the frustration so evident in Kane’s words. Percussion was used to incredible effect as a drum, a metal pipe and even a saw were used to emphasise and punctuate the conversations between doctor and patient projected onto the white walls. We see in these beaten out, visceral exchanges what Kane herself referred to as the “rhythm of madness” – the insistent cycle of emotions over which the sufferer has no control. The percussion also echoed Kane’s idea that”Depression is anger”, and seeing the percussionists facing each other and beating the drums above the doctor’s office certainly brought this idea to life in a very physical way.
As well as the doctor’s office set, the institution is also made present in the clicking sound which sounds like a tape recorder being turned on and off, as well as changing light coming through a door and a hatch in the ceiling. The clockwork-like timing of the medical institution, signalled through alterations in light and mechanical clicking, was also echoed through the performers movements around the stage as they seemed to “go through the motions” of the institution. The idea of things being turned off also relates to the patient in the play saying, “Please. Don’t switch off my mind by attempting to straighten me out”, echoing the idea of the reduction of a person into a kind of mechanical being which can be altered and fixed.
Venables’s opera, for me, captured the spirit of Kane’s play in a poetic and nuanced way. The painfully beautiful vocals, brought together with the brutal language and sense of futility which Kane expressed so wonderfully in the play, created a truly haunting piece. It successfully explored the range of emotions of 4.48 Psychosis – from black humour, to utter despair, to all-consuming rage. It drew you in and left you gasping for air. As I walked away from the theatre, I felt at once a sense sadness and of relief that it was over.