‘4.48 Psychosis’ explores mental illness

“My mind wants to die.”

If you were to cut Sarah Kane’s “4.48 Psychosis” down to a single line, that would be it.

Last weekend, Maxwell Collyard ’13 directed a production of Kane’s work in the vacant Steensland Library, starring Emelia Carroll ’13, Taylor Heitman ’16 and Jesse Landa ’16.

Taking on a work like “4.48 Psychosis” would be quite the challenge for even the most experienced of directors. Part of this difficulty stems from the extremely unconventional composition of the piece. Kane’s script is devoid of any stage directions or character divisions. Even the size of the cast is completely open to the director’s interpretation. In this case, Collyard mirrored the original production and cast three actors, dividing them as the mind, the body and the doctor.

Some background on Kane is in order here. She rose to prominence in the 1990s as a leader of the in-your-face movement in British theater, and is particularly well known for play “Blasted,” which was flatteringly compared by one reviewer to a “feast of filth.” Tragically, Kane suffered through clinical depression for much of her life and committed suicide shortly after completing “4.48 Psychosis.”

That said, and to lift a quote from Michael Billington, theater critic for London’s The Guardian, I find it impossible to “award aesthetic points to a 75-minute suicide note.” I feel that it would be in poor taste for me to offer a critique of Kane’s script. Even 12 years removed, watching “4.48 Psychosis” felt like seeing someone slowly mutilate themselves until they finally succumbed to their injuries.

Last weekend’s production was a great triumph in many ways, but ultimately, less-than-stellar performances and some confusing direction kept the play from making a profound emotional connection with its audience.

Collyard deserves quite a bit of praise for his scenic design. Steensland Hall, now a vacant storage area, was a perfect venue for the show. The bare and decrepit interior of the building provided a foreboding atmosphere that coated the space with a malaise that filled the audience with a sense of impending doom. On one end of the room, the wall was covered with pieces of a shattered mirror and shredded page of the script and the writings of Nietzsche. The playing space itself consisted of a throne on which the doctor perched and a rickety bed on which the mind and body would interact, sometimes in an almost romantic way. The lighting, designed by Marcus Newton ’16, also highlighted the actors’ relationships to their environment and established effective transitions from one moment to the next.

Unfortunately, the actors’ performances largely failed to measure up to the potential suggested by the design elements of the production. I mentioned earlier that two actors were divided into a mind and a body. However, aside from near-identical costumes I would have had no idea that Collyard chose to enact such a concept if I hadn’t taken a peek at the stage manager’s binder. Without speaking with Collyard, one could be forgiven for assuming that Carroll and Heitman were portraying two different people rather than two halves of the same person.

While none of the actors seemed terribly unprepared or out of place, they all had flaws that impeded my understanding and enjoyment of the play. First, Landa’s portrayal of the doctor was very confusing because, especially in the beginning of the piece, her physicality did not match her vocalizations. She struck an intimidating presence strutting around the space in her heels and fitted suit, but her voice and words were soft and soothing. I wasn’t sure if she was sympathetic to her patient or antagonistic. However, at the climax of the play Landa brought an amount of humanity to her character as she watched her patient’s mind suffocate its body and observed that she had been met with her “final defeat.”

I had a hard time deciphering the motivations of the mind as portrayed by Carroll. Throughout the production, she seemed to move simply because her director told her to and spoke because he demanded it. I understand that considering the subject matter an emotionless delivery may be realistic, but for the sake of a compelling dramatic narrative, there has to be something at stake for the characters. Unfortunately, the mind resigned itself to death from the moment the play started, leaving the character no room to develop. I was quite impressed by Heitman’s portrayal of the body, but her performance was tainted slightly by shaky memorization in certain places.

Finally, I had the luxury of sitting down with Collyard and asking him for his interpretation of the play and his concept for presenting. He told me that he believed a central theme of Kane’s play is the “idea of truth.” In this case, Kane wondered if taking medication to treat depression was an act of lying, of concealing one’s true self. Such an interpretation would give new meaning to a scene where Carroll’s character grudgingly agrees to undergo a chemical lobotomy. Another question that stems from this predicament is when does it become no longer worthwhile to remain entirely truthful?

Sadly, I did not pick up on any of these themes when watching the show, and I doubt that many others could have done so either. While I do not doubt for a moment Collyard’s personal investment and dedication to this work, the listless and one-dimensional performance delivered by his cast suffocated any of the passion and emotion that may have informed its creation.