Warning: mentions of depression and suicide.
There’s something truly immersive about seeing a play in a theatre. It’s not like the movies, where one can get up and go get some more popcorn, or a book, that can be picked up and put down. There are people in the space, actors, almost close enough to touch, who are telling a story right there in front of an audience. The play 4:48 Psychosis is often spoken about as playwright Sarah Kane’s suicide letter. It was her last play, written in 1999, shortly before she took her own life at the age of 28. The script is a stark, moving self-portrait of a woman in severe psychological distress and seeing it onstage, reminds one of the power of live performance.
In a Sydney production directed by Anthony Skuse at the Old Fitz Theatre in Woolloomooloo, three actors, Lucy Heffernan, Ella Prince and Zoe Trilsbach, work together to portray the range of emotions and thoughts that whirl through the unnamed protagonist’s mind. Sometimes harrowing, sometimes humorous, the play defies easy categorisation. Often it sounds like a spoken word poem or a stream of consciousness. At times, the actors take on other personas and have conversations between each other like a more naturalistic play with dialogue between characters. They move through the space separated from each other by physical distance and deep darkness.
The writer never specified the setting or the staging of the play so in this production, it takes place in almost a void, hemmed in with light and mirrors. Alexander Berlage’s lighting design has spotlights that stab down through the dark to highlight the actors, and the blinding floodlights that directly light up the seating banks, mean that neither the characters nor the audience can escape oppressive, overwhelming thoughts and emotions. Likewise, the mirrors set up by the designer, Jeremy Allen, to wall the stage in serve to force the characters and the audience to confront themselves throughout the performance.
The protagonist talks about her experiences with medication, psychologists and doctors and the impacts the interventions have on her and her mental illness. She talks about the search in finding a medication that works and a doctor who fits, someone who gets her. The protagonist opens talking about her friends, the love her friends have for her, the love she cannot understand. The protagonist talks about the doctor who likes her, who tells her that the reason she likes her is because, deep down, even though she is living with depression she must like herself, even a little. There are moments of connection with other characters that bring hope and moments of disconnection, such as the protagonist watching her partner sleep and feeling completely untethered or a heartbreakingly honest exchange between her and her favourite doctor.
It is hard to consider this play without thinking about the writer. People’s experiences of mental illness can be wildly diverse and disparate but it is difficult, if not impossible, not to feel overwhelmed at the thought that the feelings and experiences expressed were likely to have many of Kane’s own.
Ultimately, the play humanises those who experience depression. It is grounded in the perspective of one person who had a lived experience, almost feeling at times like an offering, a glimpse inside the mind of a woman with a mental illness. However, it is important to stress that help is available for those who live with mental illness and that nobody has to go through it alone.
4:48 Psychosis, by Sarah Kane, was produced by Workhorse Theatre Company with Red Line Productions at the Old Fitzroy Theatre, Sydney, and ran from August 18 to September 9.