Moments of beauty help punctuate this overlong staging of Sarah Kane’s final play.
Often considered a suicide note in the form of a play, Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis is one of the most seminal works dealing with madness. Defying convention in its writing, the text refuses to give clear stage directions or differentiate its ‘characters’, giving directors complete freedom to interpret it as they will. Under Andy Ng Wai-Shek, the Hong Kong-based director has allowed 4.48 Psychosis to play out in its most direct form. Performed by the latest graduating batch of Intercultural Theatre Institute (ITI) students, the staging feels as if we were watching the stream of consciousness of a suicidal person, breaking down further as each scene plays out.
All five performers (Kyongsu Kathy Han, Li-chuan Lin, Prajith K Prasad, Ramith Ramesh and Rhian Hiew Khai Chin) are dressed identically in loose white tops, and white pants, resembling a modern take on hospital gowns, and take turns playing the central character. Dorothy Png’s set divides the play into three ‘sections, with a series of imposing, progressively taller white frames at the far left, a white slope doubling as a projection screen in the middle, and a white cube on the right, with black box space feeling like a void surrounding the set and threatening to consume it.
For the most part, 4.48 Psychosis feels like an attempt to experiment with form and staging, taking the opportunity to test a medley of ideas from the mind of director Ng. What 4.48 Psychosis gets right is capturing the instability of mental illness. One feels a constant tension between the actors, as they perform while supported on the back of another actor, or lock hands while teetering precariously on the edge of a platform. There are moments where actors are allowed to let loose a primal scream or peal of laughter, and the production even leans into the absurd at times (with ping pong balls raining down from above). An incandescent light bulb swings above the audience, momentarily freezing the actors in an orange glow, like a pause between manic episodes. All this makes it impossible to predict just what comes next, and there is often a real fear and believable anxiety that emanates from the actors.
However, much of the play’s merits are bogged down by its pacing. While the original script was short, punchy and visceral, director Ng’s choice to stretch out the scenes causes Sarah Kane’s words to get lost in the performance, overshadowed by the physical movements and visuals. This is compounded by the fact that the actors are clearly not as comfortable performing in English, and Kane’s dark poetry ends up sounding forced and unnatural when spoken by non-native speakers. To counter this, the actors occasionally translate lines into their own languages for greater expression; Kyongsu Kathy Han’s Korean lines brim with theatricality, while Rhian Hiew Khai Chin ekes out agony when expressing her ‘love’ for her doctor in Mandarin. These are good moments, but one must then question the ‘intercultural’ aspect of this show – why then even choose to present such a piece in more or less its original form, if the actors are so clearly better in their native tongue than English?
What 4.48 Psychosis ends up being then, is a collection of fleeting ideas. While it does capture the overall mood of fear and has its share of beautiful moments, because of how underdeveloped its individual ideas and visuals are, the play as a whole lacks cohesiveness and flow. Still, as a relatively small batch, there is enough time in 4.48 Psychosis for each student to shine, and one hopes to see how the potential displayed here carries over into the remainder of their productions. There is more that could be done to bring out the raw power of Sarah Kane’s script, but 4.48 Psychosis does eventually reach a chilling conclusion; as a flurry of black ‘snow’ falls and the actors slowly back away from the theatre, we realise how it is not the screams and outbursts, but the complete and total exhaustion of someone who has given up getting better that truly scares us most.
4.48 Psychosis played from 12th to 14th March 2020 at the Drama Centre Black Box.