Brilliant Sarah Kane Work Stalls in Static Production

PsychosisSometimes artistic women commit suicide. They may flirt with the idea for years. Sylvia Plath did it at the age of thirty. Sarah Kane did it at twenty-eight. It changes the way we look at their work. Born in Essex, England in 1971, and raised by evangelical Christian parents, Kane later characterized her religious upbringing as “the full spirit-filled, born-again lunacy.”

The French production of Kane’s final play, 4.48 Psychose , at the BAM Next Wave Festival in Brooklyn (Oct. 19-30), focuses on the isolation of the protagonist, her fierce commitment to knowing what it feels like to be deeply depressed, and her refusal—for the most part—to submit herself to treatment. Isabelle Huppert, the intense French actress of movie fame (The Lace Maker, Heaven’s Gate, Entre Nous, Madame Bovary, and The Piano Teacher), gives a riveting performance, standing in one spot on center stage for the whole hour and 45 minutes running time. It is a bravura feat of concentration and commitment. Nonetheless, for me, the production is misconceived in a number of ways that simply do not serve Kane’s play.

The director, Claude Régy, sees the work as “a poem,” and he has made several choices based on this: the physically static posture of Huppert; the slowed down, intermission-less performance (the play text as published by Methuen runs only 43 small pages); the overly spare use of “super titles” because, Régy believes, “It would be destroying the work if one had to look up too often in order to read the supertitles.” He claims that over-reliance on them “muddles up the intimate—secret—relationship between the audience and the actors,” concluding, “The language of the soul is immaterial.” But this is a poem. A poem is an artwork whose medium is language. What he says is like declaring that the stone is not important to the sculptor when in fact the sculptor finds the work inside the stone. It is language that makes this play. Totally.

In Kane’s script there are no character names, no indications of who speaks what where, no set description, no stage directions. To try to make the French language communicate to hip New Yorkers on its own was a bold choice but a wrong-headed one. As Charles Isherwood points out in his New York Times review on the issue of too few supertitles, “real intimacy requires communication,” which in this case may be lost upon “those in the audience not entirely fluent in French.”

Of course there is a problem with any production that runs one hour and 45 minutes with no intermission, and the static, relentless quality of this one just reinforces the issue. The upcoming production of 4.48 Psychose at the Steppenwolf Visiting Company Initiative in Chicago (Nov. 10—Dec. 18, 2005) has a projected running time of 70 minutes, which seems more appropriate to viewer involvement.

Then there is the issue of Ms. Huppert’s performance itself, which is grand and compelling and at the same time off-putting. Was that the directorial choice? Isherwood refers to her as “the chilly French screen siren,” and it is, overall, a rather chilly performance. Since the “character” (or call her a voice) is depressed, suicidal, and possibly also psychotic, to decide to play her with a harsh, low-affect, almost mechanical quality might seem to make sense as a concept. But the problem is not simply that it is hard to care for her (since we don’t have to love or even like theater characters), it is that we soon tire of her rant. She certainly makes us understand just why psychosis is ultimately so tedious for those who must deal intimately with a psychotic person. Sooner rather than later they tend to turn us off. Now, that may be Régy’s point, but theater is the imitation of an action (as Aristotle pointed out), and it is truly risking audience alienation to try to capture the full turn-off created by the utter self-involvement of the very ill. In fact, having been informed that we could not come late nor leave early (i.e. no returns from the bathroom), audience members started to depart in discreet twos and threes about 10 minutes into the production (scampering in the dark up the stairs and out the door) and this covert desertion continued for the first hour. After that we who remained had hunkered down for the duration.

What worked? The space itself has an isolated, surreal quality that seemed right for the mood—dark sometimes, police-interrogation bright at others. The lone male actor (Gérard Watkins) behind the scrim, playing a sort of doctor/lover figure in a bright orange jumpsuit that could pass for surgical scrubs or prison garb, performed a Beckett-like function: similar to the figures in the ash cans in End Game or the male crawling in the sand in Happy Days. His brief and very occasional remarks bring us back to the nature of the issue: she is sick unto death. Of course, I suspect that Kane would say we are all sick, just some more than others, and the clearly psychotic person is only further out than any of us who bother to think or feel. In the English text, the voice says:

… my mind is the
subject of these bewildered fragments.

Nothing can extinguish my anger.

And nothing can restore my faith.

This is not a world in which I wish to live.

For me, the best part of this experience was discovering Sarah Kane, a name, I think, not presently well known in American theater circles, although very popular in other parts of the world. In 2005 all of her five plays have seen productions in such places as Berlin, Prague, Bulgaria, Norway, Paris, Vienna, Greece, New Zealand, Brazil, and even Seoul, Korea. There is a Swedish edition of her complete works. In England her work is regularly performed. Her first professionally produced play, Blasted (1995), drew such excoriating reviews that Harold Pinter and other major playwrights felt compelled to step forward and defend her publicly. She was, in her brief lifetime, a cause célèbre and has several rich websites devoted to her work.

In closing, I have a few thoughts: The Harvey theater was too large for such an intimate piece; Americans need to experience Kane’s plays in the language in which they were written; Huppert at fifty is too old for the role (which voices the raw, youthful rage of a clinically depressed woman in her mid-twenties); and there’s no reason not to perform parts of what is essentially a monologue with full-out emotion (as opposed to the stiff restraint of this performance).

Sarah Kane’s work deserves broader recognition in the United States. She is riding the razor’s edge in a risky way that we need to indulge in more. American theater these days is far too safe. Her scripts are wide open for interpretation, and young actors should be flocking to them to test their chops. A volume of her complete plays is available from Amazon. The Tindersticks’ most recent CD includes a song, “4.48 Psychose,” using Kane’s text. By the way, 4:48 is supposedly the pre-dawn time most attractive to suicides. Kane herself died in Kings College Hospital, where she had been rushed for an overdose. She survived the overdose, but two days later, when unattended, snuck into the bathroom and hung herself with her shoelaces. It was February 1999, shortly after she’d completed writing 4.48 Psychose . - Victoria Sullivan

4.48 Psychose runs through this Sunday, 10/30, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s BAM Rose Cinemas, 30 Lafayette Ave., Brooklyn NY.
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Ms. Sullivan is a poet and playwright who lives in Manhattan and has a little cabin outside of Woodstock, NY. When not brooding or laughing, she is generally traveling, writing, or staring at the trees.

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