English playwright Sarah Kane died at 28, the same age that I am today, writing this review of her last play, 4.48 Psychosis. Her words have followed me since this past weekend, when I went to St. Ann’s Warehouse in DUMBO to see a production of Psychosis, as adapted and directed by Grzegorz Jarzyna and co-produced by TR Warszawa and Teatr Polski in Poznan.
The play begins in the dark long before it really begins, with a lone figure standing shadowed against a far wall on the stage, watching late audience members check their tickets in a rush before climbing up to their seats. No one’s noticed her, I think, but she sees us. Then, when everything goes pitch black and we can hear our hearts beating (thanks to excellent sound engineer Piotr Dominski), the lights suddenly illuminate a stark hospital room, with nary a prop, save for a metal table and some odd chairs. Sarah Kane, fully embodied by Polish actor Magdalena Cielecka, approaches us, the audience, and demands with all of her energy: Speak! Speak! Touch me! See me! Love me! And, for the next few minutes, because I don’t understand, I do the opposite: I withdraw; I feel uncomfortable; and I decide not to like it.
But the play slowly begins to make sense. Kane is visited alternately by her pedantic psychiatrist, then her ordinary girlfriend, followed by a stable brother or male friend (?), and also experiences flashes in time where she becomes her innocent, hopeful child-self and her processed, aged-self, staring naked with surprise into a cloudy bathroom mirror at the apex of her life. And, through it all, Kane explains everything to us in a rapid, higher vocabulary: her “chemical lobotomy,” brought about by an unrestrained cocktail of drugs legally prescribed by her psychiatrist; her severe depression (Everything I know is snow…dark snow falling); her awareness of the banality of life; her desire to be strongly loved by a person who she senses is not yet born; her inability to stop herself from going down this path, like a freewheeling boulder (How do I stop? How do I stop! she cries out).
By the end, I wanted to save her myself, but there was no way how. I was part of Kane’s audience, perversely close enough to look into the whites of her eyes, but helpless as she descended intractably into her own psychosis. The end comes not unexpectedly, but still suddenly—Shouldn’t there be more from this solitary life? Shouldn’t she still be fighting for it? But her fight is over when she decides, like the real-life Kane decided while recovering from an overdose at London’s King’s College Hospital in 1999.
After the lights came back on and the audience had dutifully, but morosely, filed out the side curtain to the exit, I approached the only two people who seemed to stay behind to discuss the play: a Toronto-based psychiatrist and psychoanalyst named Gordon, and his son thirty-five year old son, Matt. “I’m a psychoanalyst, and this is our work at its worst,” said Gordon. I nodded. It was the drugs. “The stage distances you from the character, but hopelessness is a problem where it’s not entertainment, in that it’s hard to be emotionally gripped. We were all watching, but to die in such a cut off way is too painful to bear.” Alone in that hospital room, but before our very eyes. Matt agreed, and observed that it was the longest sustained silence that he had seen before the audience began to applaud. Both father and son highly recommended the play.
4.48 Psychosis is haunting on its own, and likely to be personal for anyone who has ever gone to see a mental health professional, but it’s a must if you have an opinion on the topic. It raises issues about how mental disorders are treated, and possibly over-medicated or over-diagnosed (as well as more abstract issues like the human condition and the malaise of modern living). Magdalena Cielecka resurrects Sarah Kane as only a supremely talented actor can, and is supported by an outstanding cadre, including set designer Malgorzata Szczesniak and lighting designer Felice Ross. And, because the play has stayed with me these past few days, I’m sure that it’s a performance I’m never going to forget.
4.48 Psychosis is performed in Polish with English supertitles, and runs for 1 hour with no intermission. Tickets are available through October 26 here. For more information, please call the box office of St. Ann’s Warehouse (718.254.8779) or reach out via Twitter @stannswarehouse.