Culture & Conversation

Exploring the Landscape of Despair

The final play of British playwright Sarah Kane, 4.48 Psychosis, presents a tightly bound construction of personal despair. Two nameless characters, seemingly expressing one mind, struggle against a downward spiral of mental illness, like a double helix of psychological destiny. In this production, directed by Liz Truchanowicz, the words come fast, laid down in overlapping patterns of pain and desperation.

Shane Houlston, in the male role, and Stéphanie Breton, his female counterpart, converse and interact, but remain like hollowed voices echoing in an obsessive mind. Unable to escape the mental anguish they narrate, they do slip briefly into firmer roles, or at least memories, of doctors, friends, and lovers, and cryptically illustrate scenes of external reality, from psychiatric care to difficult relationships – and suicide attempts.

The tight staging – empty of furnishings with bare costuming – emphasizes internal reality, and gives Psychosis a hint of the asylum ward. In addition, the two stage voices are supplemented by an atmospheric voice-over, at times layering words and information on top of the action.

Houlston’s performance is full of feeling, and the characters work well off each other, racing through challenging banter with crack timing. Yet Breton’s articulation of the crevices of agony does not plumb the depths. There is some portrayal of psychological defense at work. “Don’t you feel?” Houlston’s character asks. But the rareness of Breton’s reach into deep emotion steals power from the show of numbness through its low contrast. Houlston and Breton do make a moving connection as they argue and console over the decision to succumb or survive. A dose of profanity is released in the struggle, along with plenty of incomprehension-born anger, which punctuates the performance and keeps it moving.

The duality of nitty-gritty references to psychotropic drugs, suicide attempts and isolation, paired with an existential struggle for survival and comprehension, is no light fare. I was reminded of Sartre’s No Exit (Huis Clos), illustrating a living hell and Becket’s Waiting for Godot with characters groping in existential darkness. Yet there is no humour or invitation to irony here. Psychosis, for all its removal from daily goings on – its apparent theatrical abstraction, drills relentlessly into the mind’s grasping for control and solace amid psychological fracture. The tone is more Night Mother, Marsha Norman’s contemplation of depression and suicide.

Playwright Kane was only twenty-eight when she committed suicide in 1999, shortly after finishing Psychosis. Though it may be tempting to see only anguish, the play stands as an artful exploration of mind. Psychosis puts a state of mental illness under the magnifying glass with candid power. This is largely uncovered territory – for the theatre – and it is presented in a way that transports, though it does feel somewhat removed, underplaying conventions of character arch and story. Nonetheless, a unique gift, Psychosis entertains, even as it asks us to face the unfathomable.

4.48 Psychosis continues at Lab Space of the Segal Centre for the Performing Arts through September 26th. Box Office and for more information go to Theatre In Actu.

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