4.48 Psychosis, Fourth Monkey

Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis deals with suicidal despair, and severe clinical depression and its treatment. It is a formidable text, having no character list, no stage directions, no specified setting and no plot to speak of. Kane was famous for her innovative approach to writing; 4.48 is pretty much a free for all interpretation-wise and productions of it vary greatly.

Fourth Monkey’s version at Theatro Technis is staged on a black platform raised off the floor, with several square floor lights. All 21 cast members are dressed in variously styled hospital wear, and there are no props or anything to indicate location; no unnecessary distractions so that the focus remains entirely on the people on stage. However as the play progresses, it becomes clear that the size of the cast is something of a negative.

Fourth Monkey is a training company for actors between the ages of 18-30, taking on roughly 50 students a year who are trained on the job, so alongside studying they appear in several productions in rep. Because they have a company this size whom they pledge to showcase they must to place as many actors as possible in each production. At least, this is how it seems.

The majority of the actors function as a chorus which was a hindrance more than a help, as it often resulted in too many voices talking all at once on stage, particularly during the list of drugs given to clinically depressed patients, and their physical and mental side effects. This is a fascinating section of the play but came across as a hysterical cacophony, with information being lost in the clamour. Kane’s language is descriptive, image-heavy and informative. It needs to be heard clearly or it is easy to get lost. 4.48 requires a great deal of focus and concentration to follow and if you lose track of what’s going on because you can’t decipher what’s being said, it’s not easy to find your way back through Kane’s twisting mental maze.

As many characters are unnamed the programme didn’t specify who played who, but I felt a number of the actors playing the doctors stood out from the crowd, in particular Doctor That, who gave a smooth and subtle performance that drew my attention even when she was not the focus. When she wasn’t still she was eerily slow, and maintained an almost constant smile that gave her a threatening air. But for the most part I feel, as I did with Fourth Monkey’s production of The Bacchae, that a lot of the actors need to learn to speak rather than recite. Exaggerated pronunciation and excessively strained vocal performances put the ‘am’ into ‘am-dram’. It prevents my ability to suspend my disbelief; I fail to lose myself in the character and therefore the play, and I can’t believe I’m alone in this.

Fourth Monkey’s mission to get young actors experience on the stage is a good one in theory, and will help them learn in ways the classroom can’t provide. But every good artist knows that when you want to show off your talent, you show the carefully selected portfolio not the haphazard sketchbooks. In practice, I’m not sure actors still attempting to master their craft should be put in front of a paying public.

4.48 fails to portray the power and potency inherent in Kane’s text. The unnecessary chorus overcrowd the stage and hamper understanding by being too unclear in speech and too many in number, and the performances need serious work. Fourth Monkey approaches challenging texts which is admirable and good for a young actor to get their teeth into, but the company is not hitting its mark and the work they are producing, this season at least, is sub-standard.