Hamilton Fringe 2016
Sarah Kane’s brutally honest play-cum-suicide-note is given a high-energy, surprisingly humorous interpretation by this exciting young Ontario-based company.
While all art, it is said, is ultimately autobiographical, surely no play reflects the internal struggles of its playwright more directly than Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis. This play was literally her suicide note: she finished writing it shortly before taking her own life in February 1999, and it goes some way to explaining both her reasons for doing so, and, in quite some detail, her intended method.
What we have in store is not your average night out at the theatre; we are about to be dragged through the muddy waters of chronic depression, with a play that is structurally unconventional, to put it mildly. The script does not specify how many actors are needed, nor does it bother with any of the usual theatrical niceties such as clear-cut characters or a discernible scene structure. Arguably, it does not even adhere to Aristotle’s fundamental observation that a piece of theatre consists of a beginning, middle and end.
All this should make clear that 4.48 Psychosis is not exactly an easy play to stage. This fact makes the accomplishment I witnessed this evening all the more tremendous.
The play is performed by three wonderfully talented actors, who bounce off each other with an electric complicity, each bringing to the piece different and complementary aspects of Kane’s fractured mind. The raw passion of Kate MacArthur, the caring thoughtfulness of Breanna Maloney, and the emotional intensity of Dylan Mawson, all tessellate perfectly under Sean O’Brien’s well-paced and inventive direction. The director has a fantastic understanding of spatial dynamics – the fact that placing two actors on the slightest of diagonals, or having them approach each other by just a few centimetres, or speaking lines angled away from us or each other by just so much, can add more meaning and clarity than even the most thorough character and voice work. The play’s many disjointed sections are rendered fresh and buoyant, and the sometimes incongruous switches in mood and theme are effected with such confidence that their juxtaposition seems inevitable and perfectly sensible. It speaks of confusion, but it is never confusing.
The rhythmical juddering of a dysfunctional ceiling fan inadvertently sets the perfect uneasy atmosphere even before the house lights go down. A cracked mirror provides the only – highly symbolic – item of stage furniture. The only stage properties are a laptop computer, representing Kane’s struggle with finishing her play before her inevitable demise, and a deluge of medical pills. The asylum-white costumes facilitate the representation of patient, doctor and abstract idea in equal measure. This simplicity of design allows the actors’ skilful portrayal, and the many-layered poetry of the words they speak, to shine through and cut deep without unnecessary embellishment or distraction.
Ultimately, there is scant hope in Kane’s view of humanity, whether in this play or any of her others. But what little hope there is lies in the humour, and it is the comic angle to the play that this company succeeds particularly well at bringing to the forefront. And yet the humour works so well because it is never overplayed. This play arguably contains some of the profoundest insights into the human condition that theatre has provided for a good few hundred years. It takes an incredible maturity to pull it off without belittling the gravity of the theme, and here is a company I would trust with pretty much anything. I’m only sorry I live half the world away and will have to wait for them to come to me if I’m to track their work more closely. But since they are so thoroughly deserving of international stardom, I may not have to wait too long.