The Art of Dying 10/26/2004


They drift in space, untethered to the world, free-floating bodies that can find no footing. At the same time, they cling to the floor like slugs, weighted down by mortal flesh. The three figures in Sarah Kane’s bleak and beautiful play 4:48 Psychosis inhabit both planes at once—a groundless inner landscape of dislocation and despair, and the inescapable human terrain of brute corporeality. And that, literally, is how we see them: three actors standing or sitting or splayed out on a stage, three actors reflected in the ethereal space of a giant mirror angled over them to create a ghostly, horizontal reverse-image of the live action before us. In this brilliant production from London’s Royal Court, director James Macdonald and designer Jeremy Herbert have given elegant theatrical shape to the unbearable conundrums of a depressed soul.

That’s not to say that Kane’s text doesn’t contain clues for performance, though it reads on the page as a set of poetic fragments: odes of self-loathing, staccato dialogues between a patient and a platitudinous psychiatrist, rhythmic litanies of psychotropic meds, lyrical pleas for—and denunciations of—love and life. Lines are not assigned to any characters or voices; there are no stage directions. Still, this is a thoroughly dramatic work. It is dialectical not only in the obvious way in which it displays the relentless anguish of the divided self. More than that, it trembles with tension that is quintessentially theatrical, putting right in our face a frightful subject it tells us to avoid. “Look away from me,” an actor insists, recoiling in shame, while another voice demands, “Watch me vanish. Watch me. Watch me. Watch.”

Critics tend to describe this last play of Kane’s as her own suicide note: She killed herself at age 28 in February 1999. Such a reading is a mistake, for like all biographical interpretation, it obscures a work’s artistry with a supposed explanation of its origin. Certainly the searing depiction of clinical depression in 4:48 Psychosis could not have been written by anyone who has not battled this terrifying beast. But this is an intricately crafted, meticulous work of the imagination, not a bleated, personal diary of despair. The three fine actors who bring the play to life—Jason Hughes, Marin Ireland, Jo McInnes—create a sense of both particular and collective desperation, belonging not to any specific personality, but to many private individuals as well as to the world at large.

As in Kane’s earlier works that dealt with brutality of a more political or social sort—Blasted and Phaedra’s Love, for instance—4:48 Psychosis casts both its actors and its audience, as one line in the play puts it, in three alternating roles: “victim. perpetrator. bystander.” She knew that theater provides the ideal form for examining these positions. And that the inhumane world makes them viciously inescapable.

Confronting these options with a fourth possibility—resister—is an engaged theater’s perennial answer, so it’s fitting that in times of war or political repression Sophocles’ Antigone finds itself adapted again and again. This season the Women’s Project invited five gifted playwrights to create 15-minute responses to the classic tragedy of a woman defying state power. Some transplant the hero to modern realms: Lynn Nottage’s Antigone is a widow in an unnamed African country, boldly facing up to being stoned for having had an affair; Karen Hartman’s is a babe on the beach, ogling surfers with her sister, Ismene; Tanya Barfield’s is a black soldier’s sibling, begging a white general for something of his to bury. Others riff more abstractly: Chiori Miyagawa sets her piece in the underworld and leaves Ismene on earth to rail rhetorically against injustice; Caridad Svitch deconstructs Antigone as the object of a museum exhibit. All five works provide flashes of recognition, but, as in all projects of this nature, they feel more like homework assignments than fully realized plays.

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