FringeReview UK 2018
The revival of the 2016 Royal Opera House/Lyric Hammersmith production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis set as an opera by Philip Venables returns with many of the same team.
Again the chamber ensemble Chroma conducted by Richard Baker is augmented by use of Sound Intermedia’s terrifying airport musack at key points. Video design Pierre Martin’s key to this. Hannah Clark’s white room with door behind lit up at key moments of terror (D M Wood’s clinical versus depressive works well) exudes the chemical lobotomized blankness or wiped-out despair. Sarah Fahie’s movement direction has been taken over by RC-Annie.
When 4.48 Psychosis was staged in June 2000 sixteen months after its author’s suicide, there was a very different reaction to the outrage greeting Sarah Kane’s first play Blasted in that same space a little over four years earlier. Now people huddled, wept and sometimes howled with laughter as this piece of drama unfolded with no speech indications, no enumerated characters, virtually no stage directions.
Even now its unflinching deadpan unseats the settled complicity of being hailed a masterpiece. Even being on every drama syllabus hasn’t dimmed its way of looking at us. ‘Fuck you God, for making me love a person who doesn’t exist.’ but then the ideal lover the protagonist, or fragment of one invokes, also doesn’t exist. If Kane invokes a raw cry, there’s a cackle to counter it.
Since 2000 the world – literally since she’s staged everywhere – is catching up with Kane. No more so than when in 2016 Philip Venables’ treated 4.48 as a kind of libretto for his extraordinary opera taking this a stage further. It wasn’t just that Venables saw the play as rifted with musical indications; he saw other possibilities that break open operatic form too. The revival of the Royal Opera House/Lyric Hammersmith production with many of the same team returning is particularly welcome since its five-day run in 2016 let very few get to it. Now, though, everyone’s alerted to this work, not just because it’s been showered with awards and nominations, but because people begin to think of 4.48 differently and perhaps find this way in more seductive. It’s both more and less visceral. Hannah Clark’s white room with door behind lit up at key moments of terror (D M Wood’s clinical versus depressive works well) exudes the chemical lobotomized blankness or wiped-out despair without embellishments – a necessary model of restraint.
Again the chamber ensemble Chroma conducted by Richard Baker consists of twelve players on a platform. One violinist plays a saw at a key moment. It duets with a bass drum – singularly used when central protagonist (as here she is) says No. There’s use of Sound Intermedia’s terrifying airport musack at key points, blending with choric singing and ensemble playing, but mostly at still moments when its banality’s terrifying. Just one of Venables’ innovations to match Kane’s. Video design Pierre Martin’s key to this, as will become clear, deploying simple words and a countdown from 100, a key tool in psychiatric treatment to gauge affectivity.
Here the six-strong vocal ensemble are given names but we never hear them, and they’re not in the text. Gweneth-Ann Rand is undoubtedly the protagonist; four singers – Lucy Hall, Susanna Hurrell, Samantha Price, Rachael Lloyd – float around her, fragmenting a divided self in a rather neat manner – schizo-affective, to be strict, wasn’t Kane’s anti-diagnosis for 4.48’s persona, but depression which again she denies is a diagnosed ‘illness’. As a musical trope it works if we accept its about all of our own splintered selves. All this while mezzo-soprano Lucy Schaufer squares up as the antithetical takes on the defined role of her psychiatrist. All are uniformed in grey jeans and loppy cardigans, rendering everyone’s identity, even Rand’s and Schaufer’s, fluid and volatile.
Sarah Fahie’s movement direction has been taken over by RC-Annie. It’s functional, only fitfully illumining – and there are some fine moments including the final gesture. How do you choreograph depression? Venables has scored it do there must be a way.
Rand and Schaufer’s conversings aren’t articulated – sung or spoken – but words projected on the wall are syllabically enacted on percussion rap per word. With a timp for a question mark. It’s gloriously funny, poignant, and Venables’ greatest innovation in a work that mixes previous breakthroughs of his. The effect scores black comedy. ‘It’s not my fault. You’ve told me that so often I’m beginning to think it is my fault.’ ‘It’s not your fault.’ I KNOW’. Counting the ways she’d try to kill herself (overdose, slashing wrists, hanging) Rand adds laconically (or the timps do it for her) ‘it couldn’t possibly be misinterpreted as a cry for help.’ At such moments you’re dangerously on the side of witty suicide.
If there are shriller moments when God’s invoked: ‘… fuck you for rejecting me… fuck my father for fucking up my life’, it’s still Kane’s use of the psychiatrist as whipping-person which brooks intimacy. There’s a fantastically unstable dialogue, and sometimes it is actually spoken or sung, when the affection warily expressed by each towards the other culminates then is undercut by a chance remark or overreach. A metaphor, or a simile, Rand corrects Schauffer, is real.
Referecnes to Shirley & Company’s Disco A ‘shame shame shame and Motley Crue’s ‘Dancing on Glass’ though these are woven into a language both modernist and post-post minimal. Steve Martland was an early influence on his pupil Venables but that’s simply a percussive reference point, a freedom Venables blazes to to a language more eclectic in approach but integrated: the spoken or percussed dialogue, the singing, the overall sonance hard-edged and conversely lyric in cantilena sections occasionally makes us forget the strings and brass, pointillist or throbbing; but its unforgettable. Venables enjoys much in common with British Berlin-based modernist exiles like Rebecca Saunders. Alban Berg’s setting of Woyzeck, someone else subjected to medical trials, is never too far away either. Kane would have known this about 4.48, and her Georg Büchner certainly excites something of Venables’ Berg.
There’s quite a few A solo symphony is one description here. There’s a symphonic movement too in the adagio lead-in, the scherzo of countdown and frantic disassembly, the andante of being walked-through therapy (with the emotional disappointment in the therapist Rand expresses), the explosion of drug therapy and enforced usage; finally the long drawn out epilogue with the reassurances you’ll be fine. These last two mirror the opening two movements in reverse, if anything so fluid can be so defined. The rapid wall-projected words of precise dosages of tongue-twister drugs, dosages, effects, sometimes wry (‘unable to reach orgasm’) and however ‘good’ or bad ‘discontinued. One otherwise perfect causes a rash: no-one really knows half the side-effects. The finale starts with Rand singing chunks of St Matthew passion and other Bach snatches, as if to underline not only the God-cursed texts but to add ‘It is finished’ with a power Kane might well have approved of.
Venables thrillingly submits to Kane’s power in the end. There’s a stark realisation of this absent other, God or lover. With devastating simplicity, Kane’s final great line, unadorned rises from this texture: ‘It is myself I have never met, whose face is pasted on the underside of my mind.’
Rand and Schaufer are the most hard-working a consistently expressive singers, heartrendingly funny and tragic at the turn of a clinical table. Uniformly though cast and ensemble are excellent.
Musically this can’t be bettered. We might inevitably lose the visceral impact of pure words. This has to be staged because of what Venables ingeniously manages with percussed dialogue though some danger might ebbs away on occasion. Nevertheless, this is an outstandingly imaginative, fearless recreation of Kane’s testament in another medium. It triumphs and is easily the most remarkable, necessary opera to have been produced in years.