To be or not to be? Sarah Kane resolved that question for herself with shocking finality when, in 1999, she took her own life in a London hospital, after five brief years of being one of the most celebrated and controversial playwrights in Europe. Her final, posthumously-performed play 4:48 Psychosis is like an extended modernist riff on Hamlet’s soliloquy, though with none of the indecision. “After 4:48,” her character says, “I will be silent.”
The Quebec company Les songes turbulents, are remounting their francophone production of Kane’s play, translated by Guillaume Corbeil into 4:48 Psychose and again featuring Sophie Cadieux as the isolated unnamed woman hurtling towards the final curtain.
Cadieux’s rich, multi-layered, full-throttle performance deservedly won Quebec’s main theatre critics’ award first time around, and the opening night of this revival earned her a long and thunderous standing ovation.
Kane’s play agonises over the impossibility of resolving body and consciousness, and Cadieux, dressed in a loose white sweater, panties and Doc Martens, brilliantly embodies a fragmented psyche. Her voice ranges from babyish mewling to weary sarcasm to guttural rage as if ventriloquizing a turbulent swarm of personalities.
Kane’s text also splinters into different modes. Defiant invective is hurled at God, at doctors, at faithless lovers and the audience. Random numbers count down to oblivion. Raging Biblical prophecies contrast with deadpan medication regimens and medical reports. A nightmare is recalled of a living floor of cockroaches. (Kane was something of a poet of scuttling vermin. In one play, she gave her designers a headache by calling for a swarm of rats, one of them exiting the stage with a human hand between its teeth!)
The title refers to the pre-dawn hour at which Kane, in the grip of clinical depression, often found herself waking up, when life revealed itself with blinding clarity and seething confusion. On paper, the script looks like a claustrophobic and disjointed outpouring of panic attacks, despair and self-loathing, and it’s hard to see how it might work dramatically. Because of what followed, and because of what often reads like a statement of intent, it was initially seen as a theatrical suicide note. In performance, though, it has long proved itself to be a dynamic theatrical event. It’s even been turned into an opera, courtesy of the UK’s Royal Opera.
Director Florent Siaud has also successfully discovered the beating heart of the play, aided no end by Cadieux’s blistering, sometimes caustically funny performance
There’s something that still feels uncomfortable about using this devastatingly personal and tragic text as a showcase for bravura acting and spectacularly baroque visuals (David Lynchian red room, video projections, a sinister passageway curving into the unknown). When it was first performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2000, the response from the audience was reportedly subdued, as though they were attending a memorial rather than a theatre première. Still, 22 years have passed, and perhaps it’s a more fitting tribute to Kane to treat her play as just that, a play to be performed and appreciated as a public work of art rather than as a private howl of pain escaping from the dark night of the soul.
4:48 Psychose plays at Théâtre Prospero, Montreal, from May 15 to 22, 2022