Each playwright who treats madness as more than a mere plot device confronts a common dilemma: How do you make sense of sense's absence? How do you meaningfully represent—or in short, give meaning to—the mental state where meaning has gone awry? It's a fine line: Once crazy makes sense, it isn't crazy anymore.
4.48 Psychosis, Sarah Kane's final work for theater, produced by Little Green Pig Theatrical Concern, tilts such considerations out of the realm of literary theory and onto turf where physical and psychological survival are the most immediate concerns. Fellow playwright David Greig's account of the last part of Kane's life, which prefaces her Complete Plays, makes it reasonably clear that Kane documented the interior of her own clinical depression in this text. According to Greig, even the title is overtly autobiographical: 4:48 a.m. is reportedly the time Kane frequently awoke during her depressed state.
But on second thought, such self-documentation may only have had at most a minor concern with Kane's survival. In one of 4.48's cheekier moments, after her unnamed speaker details her contemplated method of suicide—overdose, with slashed wrists and a subsequent hanging for backup—she notes that such literal overkill "couldn't possibly be misconstrued as a cry for help." It's a point Kane returns to repeatedly: "Nothing can extinguish my anger. Nothing can restore my faith. This is not a world in which I wish to live."
Instead, Kane's narrative—that is, to the degree there is one in 4.48—delineates the speaker's reasons for leaving. These include a series of fragmentary descriptions of her fluctuating mental states. Some, as interpreted here by director Tom O'Connor and actor Dana Marks, are exultant. After goading her therapist (Chris Burner) to directly ask her why she cuts herself, the central character says, "Because it feels fucking great. Because it feels fucking amazing." More frequently, though, the depictions of her mental landscape seem like a set of disjunctive communiqués from someone who's in exile and clearly aware of just how far she lives from any realm of common appeal.
The other part of Kane's story here involves an inventory of grievances against the British mental health system, including a log detailing a series of meds—including the anti-psychotic drug Thorazine—administered to her, and their harrowing physical and psychological outcomes. In 4.48 Psychosis, the deciding factor in her leave-taking involves what she sees as the betrayal of her last therapist. She clearly discloses the fragile—and completely unrealistic—hopes and expectations she builds into their relationship at the end of a list of personal goals she thinks she can reach only with him. Although Kane's writing recalls Anne Sexton in certain passages, elsewhere, it must be said, her prose attempts to describe her alien mental vistas in little more than overwrought banalities.
The interpretive and performative gauntlet this script constitutes should be recognized in any analysis of a performance. Where the posthumous world premiere featured three actors, director O'Connor has split a script bearing no divisions between characters, descriptions of them or stage directions among Marks and Burner. (Musician Jonny Tunnell of The Never provides ambient, appropriate percussion as counterpoint in certain scenes.) The strategy only seems to go off-beam when we're not certain if Burner is playing the therapist or a frustrated lover.
Though Marks' character claims she spends most of her life in the realm of psychosis, it's not always obvious in this production. It's wise enough that O'Connor doesn't keep his actors chewing the minimal scenery—or each other—for most of the play. But this production is most convincing when we see the weight and wear of emotional extremity in the actors' bodies. A section where Marks' body slowly, agonizingly torques as she attempts to rise or crawl across the Golden Belt floor had more physical impact than a cautious later episode of cutting. A sequence where her character, ostensibly under medication, struggles to find and pronounce individual words, moves us in a way that simple, deadpan reportage—another strategy O'Connor uses a bit too often—does not.
Tragically, perhaps inevitably, Kane's script does not complete a bridge between our world and the author's. Some signals get through. But when she says, "I hope you never understand," on their face the words seem directly counter to the purpose of her script.