Sarah Kane’s devastating account of real-life suicide is a notoriously difficult play to accomplish. Covering clinical depression in almost sociological detail and honesty, this is a script that forgoes formalities such as character or narrative, and concentrates on pure emotive text and themes. So, does it work as an opera? Let me start by congratulating the commissioning parties – this is as brave and daring a production as you are likely to come across, and the fact the Royal Opera has a part to play, whose patrons are the sniffiest of the lot, is even more encouraging. Ted Huffman directs a Philip Vendables composition, and it’s about as divisive a production as you’re likely to see all year. Technically it’s very challenging; emotionally it’s very cold.
As a reviewer, I have to separate the part of myself that knows the backstory – that Kane wrote her play as essentially a suicide note to be performed posthumously. To this end you can’t deny that any version of the script will have that gut-wrenching honesty. It’s how you deal with the complexity of its contents that can make or break any production. At the Lyric, Hannah Clark has designed a stark white shell, orchestra positioned above the stage, with abundant projections bouncing off the walls. The script questions the use of similes and metaphors but here it’s definitely the latter: we’re in a psychiatric ward. The ensemble consists of only six performers, all dressed the same, with soprano Gweneth-Ann Rand our surrogate for Kane.
Musically it’s like nothing you’ve ever heard before; in fact, this is a production that is much more dedicated to its sound design than it is to creating an emotional release. It’s coming in from all channels: music, singing, dialogue and sound effects – all are given both recorded and live treatment. As for Venables’ composition, it is as bizarre and off the wall as you like. There’s so much discord, so much random timing. Whether he’s a genius or not is all down to personal preference, though I do think he has his moments, especially when he pays homage to other notable tunes hidden in the score. At other times it’s just downright unpleasant to listen to; there’s no other way of saying it. The singing is at the top end of great. You can tell how challenging Venables has made this, so all the more kudos to the three mezzos and three sopranos in the ensemble. Rand is particularly impressive; her voice resonates throughout the auditorium, and I found her performance the most emotionally engaging throughout because of this. Again, it doesn’t make for particularly pleasent listening, but you can admire the skill involved.
For my part, I found director Huffman mostly at fault – a challenging prospect I’m sure, but he’s thrown the kitchen sink in here. There are moments of good craft. A ‘conversation’ between two percussionists (one the patient, the other their doctor) not only displays excellent timing on a technical level, but adds some drastically needed levity. At other times we’re hammered with Huffman’s overuse of projection, his actors milling about the space with no rhyme or reason to their actions. Personally, I can’t marry the contemporary design with the bland, operatic staging. It feels as though there’s a lot being thrown at this production, in the hopes we’re distracted from the lack of engagement.
I’m not going to say this production isn’t worth seeking out, because everything on the surface level is truly wonderful. The idea works, the singing is breathtaking at times and you do spend 90 minutes sitting and admiring some excellent craft. However, this is not a compelling production – it’s wildly pretentious in places, and all humanisation has been forced out by technique and flashy visuals. As an advocator for substance over style, personally I wasn’t a huge fan. Then again, it is entertaining to think how this would be received in Covent Garden…
4.48 Psychosis is playing at the Lyric Hammersmith until 28 May, for more information see the Lyric Hammersmith website. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey