nytheatre.com review by Ken Urban
October 20, 2005
Sarah Kane's final play 4.48 Psychosis is receiving its second production in New York in less than a year. Last October, London’s Royal Court Theatre brought James Macdonald’s original 2000 production to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Now, BAM’s Next Wave Festival is hosting French director Claude Régy’s 2002 production featuring renowned film star Isabelle Huppert. While Huppert is a mesmerizing performer, the production lacks the spark that makes Kane’s work so compelling, transforming the play into a statement about the author’s suicide. Régy negates the play’s possibilities on stage, opting instead for a static exercise in angst.
4.48 charts the thoughts of a depressive who is in the throes of a hopeless search for a nonexistent lover. The play’s main figure—the text does not designate characters, or even indicate the number of actors required—is psychotic, the lines between reality and imaginary erased.
Kane cited Artaud and his “theatre of cruelty” as a major influence on the play. (She admitted that while at school, a professor who she didn’t like kept recommending Artaud to her and that she avoided Artaud for a number of years because of his suggestion.)
4.48 shares formal qualities with Artaud’s radio drama To Have Done with the Judgment of God (1947). In a series of monologues from various speakers, Artaud’s play gives voice to the pain that comes from that split between mind and body. While the suffering of Judgment is relentless—Artaud’s tortured scream in the original broadcast is a sound without reason, uncontained by even the play’s loose narrative threads—Kane’s play grounds suffering in a recognizable story.
4.48’s most touching and humorous moments occur between the patient and a doctor who is trying to help. When the doctor suggests drugs to help with the depression, the speaker worries that it will interfere with work, to which the doctor replies, “Nothing will interfere with your work like suicide.” That kind of black-as-coal humor is a Kane trademark and while 4.48 ranks as her bleakest play, Kane’s humor, her sparse and poetic language, make 4.48 not just a chronicle of personal despair, but a play about humanity’s isolation, our inability to know ourselves and those who love us.
Unlike Macdonald’s production that divided the text among three speakers, Régy’s 4.48 Psychose is primarily a monologue to showcase Huppert’s amazing stage presence. Huppert stands in the center of the auditorium in front of a scrim and she does not move for the production’s 100 minutes. It is physically grueling and the tension of her performance comes from her desire to break free: to move, to use her hands, to communicate to us. Yet, she is unable to do so; pain has frozen her in place.
Huppert delivers Kane’s text in French, in a slow, almost monotonous voice. The moments when the rhythm shifts sparkle, lifting the production out of its narcoleptic haze. The repetition of “flash flicker slash burn” near the play’s conclusion demonstrates how rhythm can forcefully convey the content of the speaker’s addled brain. It is a moment that is incredibly powerful in performance, working to great effect in both Macdonald’s and Régy’s productions. Yet, in this incarnation, that theatrical energy is rare. One of the great benefits of seeing the play in French is how it allows an audience member to focus on sound. But reading 4.48 conveys a variety of tones and tempos. Huppert’s delivery tends toward only the slow and stilted. Huppert commands our attention at first, but the show grows tiresome.
Occasionally, subtitles are projected above the stage, but their purpose is unclear, more distracting than enlightening. They are not frequent enough to help non-French speakers understand the play, nor are they integrated enough into the production to feel like a clear directorial choice. You have to crane your neck upwards just to read them, taking your focus off of the stage, never a good thing.
Huppert is joined on stage by Gérard Watkins, who appears behind the scrim as the doctor figure. Huppert never turns her gaze away from the audience. In this production, the play’s principal speaker is unable to reach outside of herself to anyone. While the play is ambiguous about the outcome—the final line is “please open the curtains”—Régy’s production makes suicide the only solution. And that is its major flaw.
What draws me to Kane’s work is her humor and how love is possible even in the most horrifying of circumstances; that’s what makes her a genuine political writer. What makes her so admired by playwrights and directors of my generation is her work’s inventive theatricality; she wrote plays that beg to be staged. The very things that make Kane a great playwright are missing in this production. This is 4.48 Psychosis as Kane’s suicide letter. But to reduce a play as finely crafted as T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land to biography is criminal, for this play is not about a young writer who killed herself at twenty-eight.
Kane’s life is destined to loom large over her plays, just as Artaud’s does over his theatrical writings. But the intensely personal material of 4.48 Psychosis does not preclude a production that engages the world beyond the stage.