The Private Function of Public Arts

January 2015
My dear friend and I went to see Sarah Kane’s ”Psychosis: 4:48 am” several weeks ago – in a lovely Arts centre in Ealing.


The play is about clinical depression, self-harm, clinical observation, medication and suicide. And Kane did commit suicide after writing it, maybe in 1998.


It is a dramatisation of the inside of a sufferer’s head, with multiple speakers – and a main character – but with no names or gender written in. But it is usually played by women and here it was here played by five young women. I saw it in Edinburgh in 2012 with a cast of perhaps twenty.


The play puts one through a wringer.


However, we were disappointed this time – Roberta, seeing the play for the first time but being aware of Kane as a playwright, particularly felt that the main actor was wooden, not believable. I agreed, putting it down to a lack of experience and/or good direction.


The first time I saw the play in Edinburgh in 2012, the production was un*******gbelievable.


A moving mass of actors, speaking individually and in unison, sometimes in rapid fire, sometimes accusatorily, sometimes tenderly and lyrically, brought Psychosis alive in a stunning and breathtakingly tight choreography of voices, bodies and movement – enhanced all the more by diaphanous surgery gowns whose green colour under the well-designed stage lighting emphasised the sense of a soul—or souls—in limbo.


And the cast were all at drama school – average age maybe nineteen. I was dazzled and dumbstruck by the professionalism.


Not knowing the play before Edinburgh, it had taken me some time to understand that this was a dramatisation of inner experience and voices – despite the reputation of this dark, anguished psychological play preceding itself and putting me in slight trepidation.


A drama on a depressing subject, the Edinburgh production itself was paradoxically uplifting and inspiring, making your spirit soar and transcend the story and the pain of the main character, whilst feeling full of a huge compassion.


And full of admiration and compassion for Sarah Kane, the troubled playwright, who had produced such a piece out of her own life.


The story of seeing the play is connected for me with that of seeing ‘Happy Days’ by Beckett in the Young Vic—in that awful time a year ago last February when that bastard shovelled another bucket of shit on me by dying—which was a production that also enabled me, a little bit, to transcend grief, sorrow and bitterness.


As I said, I had not been able to face much Beckett before, performing miserably in English Literature A level at school, whilst cowed by the hot and cold war at home as two people tore each other’s throats and brains out every day of the week regardless of the radioactive fall-out, and by the perceived bleakness in the play I was forced to study that seemed to cruelly, insensitively, just replicate the bleakness in life.


Juliet Stevenson’s work as Winnie—the hapless, brave, prattling but inventive and unstoppable woman buried up to her waist and then neck in a perhaps post-apocalyptic, harshly lit desert—enabled that transcendence and the power to see the amazing qualities of Beckett.


And maybe it is not the play that is stymieing, dangerously disturbing, but the way it might be studied.


Lifelessly, joylessly, cruelly, neutrally; in a cowardly way; primly; moralistically. These all being things that I—being ordinarily flawed—am often guilty of on first reading or watching – whilst endeavouring not to be.


Or the way it is acted – that does not bring it to life and does not transcend tragedy or dark places through vital representation.


Go Google videos of Sarah Kane’s play ‘Psychosis’ and you find that it is, like Beckett, a staple of A level drama education—performed and studied the English-speaking world over, if not the world.


Young minds are being deformed! Led astray by the perverse! By mad or overweening artists!


You will find many, many videos of student productions, most of them not good quality. And which is not a sin – they weren’t made to be proper commercial videos.


And, despite the disappointment on that Saturday in Ealing, there was enough energy in the production to be able to relate to the actors’ honest, committed efforts, and a very satisfying sense at the curtain call of five young people highly attached to and appreciative of both the play and each other – through having gone through the process of production.


Reviews of Sarah Kane’s Psychosis staged by Fourth Monkey





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