When British playwright Sarah Kane submitted what was to be her play ‘4:48 Psychosis’ to her agent, it came with a note: ‘Do with it what you will, just remember – writing it killed me’.
Two months later in early 1999 Sarah killed herself after being admitted to London’s King’s College Hospital. Her final work is being staged by Workhorse Theatre Company, directed by Anthony Skuse who says the play should not be confused with the playwright.
“The only thing is she finished the play around November of 1998 and then the suicide happened in February of 1999,” Anthony explains.
“So there is a separation of the two. Some people have the idea it’s a little bit like Virginia Woolf writing her suicide note to Leonard, putting her cardigan on and walking into the river; it’s not like that. I think it’s not quite correct to conflate the two things so easily.”
Sarah Kane suffered from clinical depression and ‘4:48 Psychosis’ (named for the time she apparently awoke due to her depressive state) is a complex exploration of the condition she endured.
“What’s interesting when you look at the play is that the play is so carefully structured,” Anthony says.
“She’s an amazing playwright and in absolute control of her playwriting skills and talents. It’s not a hastily scribbled cry for help; it’s a carefully constructed, considered work that has lots of references to other pieces of literature. It’s really an extraordinarily constructed work.”
Image © John Marmaras
The play is Kane’s shortest and is bereft of traditional theatrical conventions such as set, characters, plot or even stage directions. What is presented is a poetic and harrowing work that takes the audience right into the darkest sectors of the human mind.
“I think as a writer she talks about the need to edit and to edit out everything that is not necessary and that’s what she’s done,” Anthony says. “There’s nothing descriptive in it in terms of where it is set, who is speaking, how many people are speaking; none of those things are there but there is quite a lot in the text that gives you clues that you can then follow.”
In approaching a play with no formal directions as to how it is to be staged, Anthony says it was a matter of experimenting and relying on his own instincts as a director, as well as those of his cast to achieve the desired visual aesthetic.
“The space will look clinical,” he says. “It’s black but there are mirrors."
“I was listening to an interview last night with the director of the first production who was a good mate of Sarah’s and they also used mirrors. The mirrors come up from this idea of her experience of the world is always mediated through the psychosis and in fact our view of her or the character, is again mediated through this psychosis. That’s why for me the mirror came up as a beautiful metaphor to place in the space.”
Workhorse’s production of ‘4:48 Psychosis’ stars Lucy Heffernan, Ella Prince and Zoe Trilsbach-Harrison, not so much as characters but as various aspects of the work that adds a sense of interiority to the performance, as Anthony explains.
“It’s a way of using multiple voices to give the idea of three-dimensionality or inwardness, an interior world and by using three voices and the three women there’s that sense that they are the one woman but different aspects of the one woman.”