Life is unbearable, but drugs are a ‘chemical lobotomy’; Sarah Kane’s work is caught in a dilemma of pathologised grief, pill bottles and troubled relationships, messily expressing the events surrounding her decision to die. Crooked Pieces’ production of her most controversial play is set in a wasteland of pill cabinets, effectively designed by Faye Bradley, that brings to life a smoothly realised ensemble interpretation but sadly fails to hit home.
Although non-linear, Sarah Kane’s play isn’t wholly unstructured; motifs and ideas repeat to form familiar, circular patterns. Counting down from 100 in sevens in a psychiatric test of memory conflicts with her despairing boyfriend, meetings with doctors, a litany of grimly intoned drug names; these events repeat and unfold, filtered through the changing moods of her mental state, from psychologist-programmed optimism to grim resolution. Charlotte Donachie’s performance is central to the piece and there is much to like in her humour and blank, mask-like pain. Likeable, though, she seldom captures the aggression and anger in the text, the tendency to lash out at those trying to help her. There is power here, but it is faint and diffuse, never strong enough to grab the audience and force them to understand her predicament.
Sarah Kane’s script leaves the number of actors used open to interpretation, with the original Royal Court production using three; in taking the bold step of casting six, director Samuel Miller ends up diluting the play’s strength, fragmenting an already fragmented script further. There is a strong moment as the cast emerge from their hiding places to surround the lead actress, reflecting her anguish back at her, but the effect of the continuously inhabited stage is elsewhere just a bit too cosy. Surrounded by actors, we never get a sense of the devastating loneliness of depression, of the distance it creates between the sufferer and others. The large cast also creates problems by making it more difficult for characters and scenarios to emerge; in particular, the decision to split the role of the psychiatrist into two voices ends up dissembling the peculiar intimacy of Kane’s patient-doctor relationship, rather than strengthening it. Even so, some of the play’s most memorable moments come from medicalised interactions, with Stephen Connery-Brown believable as a slippery mental health professional whose humanity gradually emerges against his better judgement.
There is something strange about pouring out grief and misery to a medical professional without being met by an answering tide of emotion; the cold set phrases that act as buffers, the “It’s not your fault”s, pattern the doctors’ inadequate responses without ever becoming meaningful. The gradual intrusion of personal frustration and pain onto a medical record, recited by the ensemble, is put across particularly effectively, humorously breaking down the boundaries between medically appropriate and inappropriate, personal and impersonal. Elsewhere, though, the black humour of the play is unable to shine through; the cast simply lack the harshness and bleakness needed to create the contrasts of the piece. Crooked Pieces’ production is a polished look at this suicide note of a play; unfortunately, though, they’ve smoothed off the jagged edges that should let it bite.
4:48 Psychosis is playing at The Drayton Theatre until 29 September. For more information and tickets please see the The Drayton Theatre website.