May 10, 2008

4:48 Psychosis @ The CAPITAL Centre

A digression to start with. Michael Billington famously said of Sarah Kane's final play, 4:48 Psychosis, "How do you review a 75 minute suicide note?". I take his point, you can't review a suicide note. But 4:48 Psychosis isn't one. It's a piece of theatre, a distressing and uncomfortably real one perhaps, but theatre nonetheless. It has characters and text, it requires cast and director, space and audience. Once staged, in the same way as, say, The Phoenix and the Turtle was staged, a text becomes theatre and can - and should - be reviewed as such.

It's rare, perhaps impossible, to find discussion of 4:48 that doesn't dwell on the suicide of its author before the play's first production. I mention it only to consciously attempt to dissociate the play from the event. Kane's death was tragic, but I've always felt that a production of a play should be about the text and the company's interpretation, not about the author or the original context in which the play appeared. I'm interested in Kane's work, not Kane herself.

It's a popular play among students. On top the Kent production that won an award at the National Student Drama Festival this year come two performances at the CAPITAL Centre , directed by Stu Denison and performed by Rose Biggin. The interest is easy to understand: the challenging issues raised, the demands on a performer in what is essentially an hour-long monologue, and the text's openness to interpretation, having little in the way of stage directions or instructions. It's a powerful and moving piece, and an essential piece - in text or performance - for anyone interested in the mental and performative processes of depression.

Denison's production was gimmick-free. A patchwork floor made up of criss-crossing lines and diagonals echoed the movements, focussed or meandering, that Biggin made as she moved around the stage. A desk and chair at the back sat under an enormous noticeboard covered in sketches, numbers, words and jottings. In its sparsity, the CAPITAL Studio became a cell in which Biggin was trapped, occasionally looking up in a momentary delight at a spotlight as a 'hatch opened'. Pacing around her confines, the sense of entrapment that her mental state enforced upon her was keenly felt.

Biggin gave a solid and committed performance as the nameless woman, a performance relentless in its anger and frustration. Continually distracted, she sometimes rocked on the spot, sometimes strode purposefully only to stop short, sometimes scribbled frantically on pads, sometimes curled up in pain. The impression given was of a physical manifestation of the mental state that accompanies depression, the never-ending pain and disjointed thought processes. Always in Biggin's eyes was a haunted expression, and however hard she tried to stay calm or talk rationally she would soon end up clutching at her stomach again or raising her voice to a shout.

The character's education and verbal facility were apparent throughout, which led her to not only experience her feelings, but to attempt to articulate and perform them as well. One scene in particular, as she described the various effects of her different medications, particularly showcased this as she sped up and slowed down her delivery according to the various symptoms she described, while also wryly describing the murderous feelings towards doctors and drug-makers they inspired in her. At another time she enacted a farewell speech, bowing to the audience in mock adulation.

Even in these moments, though, the anger and bitterness still dominated. There was a great amount of humour in the text, but always delivered with a clear bite. I was actually quite disappointed by this, as there were moments when exploring the comedy may have deepened the impact of the rest of the play. In one crucial moment, the character said that one of the things she liked about the doctor was that he laughed at her gallows humour. It would have been great to see more of this, to explore the possibilities within the text that allow the performer to go beyond angry and depressed. In trying to conjure the feeling of depression, the way in which a person actually acts while depressed was slightly lost. Biggin wore her trauma on her sleeve, which let us know how she was feeling but often ignored the possibilities apparent in the text for exploring the comedic personas, quack diagnosticians and self-deprecating wit that she talked about. It's not a wrong decision - my feeling was that one facet of her character was explored in great depth and detail, but that there may have been greater possibilities for variety.

The only other 'character' that emerged in this production was a doctor, voiced by Denison via a microphone. These moments served as a welcome relief from Biggin's monologues, usually involving her sitting at her desk and answering him calmly. Denison's voice contrasted well with Biggin's, a peaceful and human voice that cut through the monologue and brought a reason to the narrative that both calmed and exacerbated the situation at the same time, Biggin's character understanding his approach but lashing out against the attempts to diagnose or treat her. However, in the doctor's last voiceover, he became suddenly emotional, describing his need for sanity and normality in his friends and family. This felt awkward, inappropriate. More to the point, it didn't sound like something the doctor would say at all, based on his professionalism hitherto. They sounded like words that the patient had put into his mouth, in order to justify her own detachment from him, and the sudden change in these final moments felt like an inconsistency.

This production did well what it seemed to be trying to do, and Biggin should be commended for her performance. I think there were possibilities to be more ambitious, but ultimately what shone through was the text, a powerful piece of writing on a raw issue.

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Peter Kirwan is Teaching Associate in Shakespeare and Early Modern Drama at the University of Nottingham and a reviewer of Shakespearean theatre for several academic journals.

The Bardathon is his experimental review blog, covering productions of (or based on) all early modern plays. The aim is to combine immediate reactions with the detail and analysis of the academic review.

Theatre criticism always needs more voices. Please comment with your own views and contributions!

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