A blog on directing 4:48 Psychosis by Sarah Kane, posted on 20th February 2014 – the 15th anniversary of her death. Above – a short video with highlights of our performance at Identity Drama School – made by Orchfilms.
Fifteen years ago today Sarah Kane committed suicide.
Her work caused controversy, exhilaration and agitation throughout the theatre world. I’ve always been fascinated by it. In my early twenties it repulsed me, and yet strangely drew me in. As I’ve got older, wiser (debatable) and more experienced as a playwright I’ve begun to see how revolutionary she was. Last Summer I was lucky enough to direct a student production of 4:48 Psychosis, her last play (she died a year before it premiered at the Royal Court). Many thought the play was Kane’s suicide note, although her family and close colleagues dispute this. I’ve wanted to do it for ages, but I was very afraid. So on this day I thought it might be fitting to share a little bit about my experience.
4:48 has no named characters. It has no stage directions. It has no named setting. It is non-linear. It has none of the hallmarks of a traditional play which give directors, actors, and indeed audience signposts to it’s story. It is, I think, a big, honest, strange, ugly, beautiful, dazzling, heartbreaking, terrifying mess of a play. That’s not to say it’s haphazardly thrown together; oh no. Its form is erratic but not accidental. It moves in and out of episodes of lucidity in which we can clearly decipher scenes between a doctor and a patient. In between these it embodies a fractured, episodic structure. It is brimming with haunting imagery created through extraordinary use of language. The rhythms of the play are ever changing and you experience them throughout your whole body; not just cerebrally. It’s bloody funny sometimes too.
It is a play about Kane’s experience with depression and mental illness. It is about the inability to distinguish between imagination and reality. It is about grappling with the idea of ending one’s life. It’s title refers to the few minutes following 4:48am where the play’s subject appears to be in their right mind. Rather than telling the story of someone with crippling depression it welcomes the audience into the sufferer’s world for an hour and a quarter. If you are watching a truthful production of 4:48, I believe you will stop asking the questions “Who are we? Where are we? What’s going on?” and put yourself in the hands of the company; experience the extraordinary depths of the play, and the occasional moments of brilliant light and warmth.
I had a cast of twenty adult actors in training at Identity Drama School. There was a wide range of age, ability and experience. I had a few ideas; I knew I wanted to make it highly physical, I knew I wanted to make use of a chorus and I wanted to explore some ideas of bouffant theatre I learned from Mark Bell at LAMDA, which I’ve wanted to put into practice for years. Voice wise we really had our work cut out, and we employed lengthy voice sessions at the beginning of every rehearsal. But physically these actors were incredibly creative and responsive from the word go, and the work they produced was quite breathtaking. I began to think we had something very special on our hands.
Then I made my director’s error. I set about trying to tidy up this big, beautiful mess of a play. We identified a protagonist. We called him/her “X”. We gave him/her a back story, a biog, a context. We tried to define the relationship that “X” was having with his/her doctor. I tried to put trite conventions in place (when the actors sleeve is up, exposing the red band on the wrist, they are “X”. When the actor lowers the sleeve and picks up the clipboard, they are the doctor. No band, no clipboard means they are chorus; essentially “X’s” thoughts. YAWN). While this stuff proved helpful – nothing was wasted – it was me not trusting Kane. It was me trying to allocate characters, define relationships, shoehorn plot. It was me, frankly, shitting myself.
But over the 12 weeks that followed, when we rehearsed twice a week, these conventions fell away. I forgot the pretentious red band idea, no longer felt the need to specify who “X” was– in fact all that remained was the clipboard which served us well as a simple way of identifying a medical practitioner. We rehearsed right through the heat wave of August 2013, our chorus of twenty writhing and convulsing and sweating in their white linen costumes, trying to do justice to this play which we had become incredibly attached to.
The level of trust in the rehearsal room had to be absolute. The actors had to trust me, I had to trust them, I had to trust my instincts and we all had to trust Kane. As time went on we grew bold, followed our guts, and allowed questions to hang in the air, knowing that part of the experience was allowing them to remain unanswered.
That all sounds a bit wanky. I’m not sure Sarah would approve. I find it hard to express my feelings for this play eloquently. I was incredibly proud of our production, which received a standing ovation when performed at The Courtyard Theatre. We only gave one performance but luckily we had talented film maker Louis Orchison of Orchfilms there to film the piece – and he put together the short film at the top of this page. For me as a director it was an unparalleled experience in teamwork and trust with these actors in training. I want to direct Kane’s work again.
I’ll just leave you with three simple thoughts about 4:48 Psychosis. For me, in all of its mayhem and chaos, at the centre of this play is someone driven to madness by the thought of their own mortality. And their search for love and meaning in life until they meet that mortality. That’s something I can relate to. I think many can.
Secondly, despite the incredibly dark world it creates, Kane writes about the most brutal things with such beauty and wit that I cannot help but be moved and spurred by it. She has been a big influence on my writing.
And finally, in feedback people said they had felt for short while they understood what it would be like to be in the mind of someone with crippling depression. This pleased me immeasurably. The play’s fractured, episodic structure and lack of decipherable storyline is what gives you that true insight – more effectively than any article or documentary could. 4:48 Psychosis helps people to understand people, in the way only theatre can. And it does it completely. Therefore, for me, it will always be a play full of hope.