For anyone following British theatre of the last two decades, Sarah Kane’s is a legacy which is impossible to avoid. Her swansong, 4.48 Psychosis, is both a detached and dazzlingly lyrical study of mental illness, and her own suicide note. It is one of those rare plays which is both impossible and inappropriate to take out of context; that being a piece first performed posthumously in the year 2000, the script written shortly before the author’s suicide. These unique circumstances have often divided critics, who question quite fairly the possibility of aesthetically and critically judging something so viscerally personal.
It is therefore a notoriously challenging play to do well. Quite apart from the risk of being upstaged by the ghost of Sarah Kane; the bewildering structure, lack of narrative and constant hops between naturalistic and poetic language often prove tricky to successfully adapt into something resembling commercial theatre. Luckily, Fourth Monkey’s astute attempt directed by Steven Green is sensitive, frightening and delicate, with an impressively light touch for such an intimidating script.
It is visually stunning, the square lights in the floor cast a cool blue glow - a literal interpretation of the repeated image ‘Hatch opens, stark light’. The tones of the play are all an icy blue; creating an ethereal effect supported by the tattered garments, occasional set of wings and dramatic shadows around the eyes. Yet the calm, powdery blue is also instinctively linked with hospital gowns.
Co-director Charleen Qwaye deserves particular acclaim for her beautifully crafted movement and dance sequences, which segue throughout the play in a mixture of the elegantly balletic and violently staccato. The focus is on one solitary figure; but the other twenty actresses representing the voices of her mind contort and writhe in a seething mass of bandaged limbs and dishevelled locks, lifting the protagonist and tearing at her clothes and hair.
The dialogue never forms a conversation; it is more a tense push-pull confrontation between each raucous facet of the protagonist’s sanity. The voices compare symptoms and prescriptions; at which the others clap and cheer as though at some malignant game show. ‘Weight loss, anxiety, inability to reach orgasm... 12 Prozac and 8 Temazepam!’ This hideous one-upmanship offered a terrifying view of the lengths people will go to compulsively self harm; I felt queasier with each symptom and drug listed. A blindfolded figure announced with an unseeing smile; ‘I gassed the Jews, I slaughtered the Kurds, the Killing Fields are mine. When I die, I’m going to be reincarnated as your child. I’m going to make your life fucking hell.’ It is a nightmare, it is terrifying.
Charlie Bate, the actress playing the nameless lead ‘Voice 1’, tackles both the poetry and pornography of Kane’s prose with aplomb; her voice aches with vulnerability, but is still silvery clear. The repeated refrain, ‘At 4.48’, is gradually amended with a weary sense of the inevitable; ‘At 4.48; comes clarity, I shall sleep, I shall speak no more’. Both the horror and the beauty of the script are as stark as frost patterns on a window; the lines shimmer in the air. 4.48 Psychosis offers a truly subjective, personal, perhaps isolated case of trying to carry on with the business of living when sleep is unreachable and even breathing causes pain. At the end, the curtains opened and the lights came up to tears on my face.