Sarah Kane named her final play before her suicide for the time she would often wake up, experiencing a moment of freedom from the delusions of psychosis. Her central character shares this experience, intensely fixated on ending her life at this precise time. Kane’s 4:48 Psychosis is a deeply disturbing piece of theatre, a 75-minute “rupture of the soul” on stage. The play documents the mental fall-out of heartbroken, psychotic female character, physically divided into ‘Her’ and ‘Other”. It has often been ‘described as an elaborate suicide note which documents some of the turmoil Kane experienced and perhaps in some way explains her final actions. Kane forces us to look in this mirror of her own painful experiences as a way of sharing a brutally honest exploration of how it feels to be mentally ill.
The delicate nature of the material in 4:48 Psychosis made it a bold choice for the Takeover Festival Team, a group of under-26s selected to run York Theatre Royal for two weeks. The whole production team and cast fall into this age-bracket, with the play being the first that Rhiannon Jackson has directed. The free-form nature of Kane’s play, with its lack of stage directions, and ambiguity of dialogue and characters, makes this a difficult show to produce. And of course the deeply disturbing psychological turmoil affects all who work on the production, creating real emotional challenges for the actors and crew.
Out of these difficulties Takeover has produced a remarkable show, a production which forces us to challenge our notions of mental illness. It is a painful experience, enticing the audience momentarily with the image of tenderness between the doctor and his patient, before plunging us back into the depths of self-blame and unworthiness triggered by his perceived betrayal. At times we can empathise with ‘Her’; we feel her pain when her love for the doctor is rejected and when she is taunted by her ‘Other’. But it is not long before we are plunged back into the paranoid delusions of her mind, which we struggle to relate to.
Particularly worthy of praise was the set. Walking into a room with a bed at ninety degrees to the floor we immediately feel disturbed, as if we ourselves are hallucinating as we look at her blood-stained bed. This continues, pulling the audience ever deeper into the desperate delusions of mental illness as the doctor and ‘Other’ watch and taunt the main character lying impossibly on this bed-wall. For me, this was immensely powerful, visually breaking the space into two distinct zones, or mind spaces, alternately inhabited by ‘Her’ and ‘Other’, which together make up the main character. We are given a painful and stark demonstration of the fragmented nature of a mind, an image which stays deep within us long after memories of the show fade.
In all, Takeover’s production of 4:48 Psychosis is remarkably powerful. The brutality and emotional turmoil of Kane’s play is capably handled and enhanced through clever use of set and space. For the duration of the play we are invited into the world of psychosis, a world from which we leave deeply affected by the horrors of mental illness.
This review is part of the Takeover Festival currently taking place at York Theatre Royal, for more events see its website here.