Goodbye, Cruel World

The script for Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis contains no stage directions and does not assign its lines to any characters.  Words, numbers, and snippets of dialogue are littered across the page, and we only slowly become aware that the action concerns a psychiatrist and his or her suicidal patient.  This offers directors, designers, and actors a great deal of opportunity for interpretation: the original production featured three actors, one male and two females, while this one, currently running at the Magic Futurebox Theatre, has just two women, who alternate between playing the doctor and the depressive.

Oona Curley, the production designer, has done a wonderful job with her space—inside a large, empty room that resembles an unfinished construction site, she has built a tiny room enclosed by drapes, so that we are nearly nose-to-nose with actors whose voices boom and echo throughout an unseen darkness.  Everything from their clothes to their sheets is white, except an ominously placed black belt, while we wait with unfulfilled anticipation for the crimson stains of blood.

The problem, however, is that 4.48 Psychosis is not a play; it is a series of loose thoughts purged from an unquiet mind. (Kane would kill herself shortly after completing the script.)  As Michael Billington wrote in his original, unstarred review, “How on earth do you award aesthetic points to a 75-minute suicide note?”  There are some nice moments of truth—the lines, “I have become so depressed by my mortality that I have decided to commit suicide,” and, “Some will call it self-indulgence (they are lucky not to know its truth)”—but with so little context, they are drained of most of their power. Samuel Beckett, an author Kane must have admired, would continue to pare down his writing throughout his career, until he reached a point where there was almost nothing on the page.  With 4.48 Psychosis, Kane suffers from the same problem.

The actors, Emily Gleeson and Lizzie Vieh, are no help.  They both saw the air with their hands, emphasizing each line and each action with the urgency of performers who don’t quite know why they are saying what they are saying; sitting so close, it has the effect of watching a particularly bad high school play—we don’t know who to feel more embarrassed for, these actors or ourselves.  At one point, Ms. Gleeson spits on herself with a strange deliberateness.  She seems to be doing this for no better reason than that good actors are willing to be unflattering; it comes with the self-satisfaction of someone who can cry on command.

The final line of the play is, “Please open the curtains”—after 4.48 Psychosis, the most beautiful words in the English language.

4.48 Psychosis runs through May 27th at the Magic Futurebox Theatre.  55 33rd Street  Brooklyn, NY.

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