Writer: Sarah Kane
Director: Samuel Miller
Reviewer: Steve Barfield
The Public Reviews Rating:
One laudable, stated aim of theatre company, Crooked Pieces, is ‘to pioneer the work of female playwrights and to redress the balance between male and female written work produced and performed on the stage’. It would however, be hard to feel this playwright and this particular play are neglected. Sarah Kane is extremely popular across the world, already part of the critical canon of contemporary drama and while there haven’t been many major revivals of this play in the UK since its first and memorable run at the Royal Court in 2000, apart from the memorable one woman version at the Young Vic in 2009; there have been some interesting production both on the fringe (for instance, Tangram theatre’s striking choral piece at the Old Red Lion, 2006), and across the world, some of which have visited Britain (for instance, TR Warszawa’s grimly harrowing production in 2010).
In fact the real problem that any theatre company faces in choosing such a famous and continually produced play is being able to find something fresh in the material, or else to find an innovative path in what is already such well-trodden territory. While Samuel Miller directs a competent production it never quite deals with these problems and for all its solidity, it doesn’t really catch fire, despite Kane’s own astonishingly honest, incendiary and deeply passionate words.
4.48 is a play for one or more voices as very little was defined by Kane, including who actually speaks the words, and it is up to a director to impose what order and structure they will in the absence of stage directions in the text. It is a haunting theatre poem of many extreme tensions and paradoxes: at once a searing account of depression and yet filled with words of unusual luminosity and beauty; raging with anger and incredibly tender and vulnerable; abstract and visceral; naturalist and anti-realist; preoccupied with form, but seemingly determined by its extreme content of severe, possibly psychotic depression. It is as much about love (perhaps the real theme of Kane’s oeuvre), as it is about death and the final release, perhaps the transcendence of suicide after a descent into the underworld (what the Greeks called katabasis). It is perhaps the closest Kane got to the work of the great, late plays of her theatrical hero, Samuel Beckett and has the same grimly remorseless comedy and the power to wring from autobiography, approaching testimony, the surprising beauty of art.
What Crooked Pieces have done however is to settle for a generally psychological interpretation that smooths out the deliberate ragged fragmentation of the text, and largely elides its tensions. The key protagonist is played by Charlotte Donachie and three other actors (Rachel Eirann, Lewis Howard, Isabella Gordon), serve as if they were that protagonists internal voices. There a rather striking and gothic moment at the beginning, when the three internal voices emerge from the dusty filing-cabinets, boxes and cupboards onto the stage. It’s a clinical setting which suggests both the state of the protagonist’s mind and the offices of a psychiatric hospital.
Stephen Connery-Brown and Laura Pradelska play two psychiatrists, splitting the words that might be those of a doctor speaking to patient into bad and good voices. Connery-Brown was suitable genial and charming while Pradelska rather more clinical and abrasive. I think the complexity of the staging did sometimes make for the action being somewhat cluttered and harder to follow than necessary, in a small space with six actors being different characters/voices. The desire to impose naturalism and the psychological framework did sometimes make this aspect worse: although the drama of internal voices is one way to create tension in the piece.
However, the main problem was Donachie’s naturalist portrayal of a single protagonist’s voice; while her character certainly quivered with anxiety and despondency, it was a subdued performance that didn’t quite touch both the rawness and anger of the play’s voice(s), nor the ringing poetry of Kane’s lines. In the end the production was perfectly solid, but it didn’t catch the tensions of the piece described above. Where were the transcendence and the terror, or the pity and the rapture? It is a play which while it is about a person suffering mental illness, also reaches out to become a resonant emblem of contemporary experience.