Sarah Kane is the most notorious playwright England has produced since Harold Pinter shook the staid halls of British theatre in the late 1950s with his strangely absurd “comedy of menace.” Kane blasted another theatrical generation out of its complacency with her appropriately titled first play, Blasted, in 1995. Its extreme violence, graphic sex, and general nastiness gave rise to a school of playwriting which came to be called “in-yer-face” theatre.
Her hugely influential career came to a quick end when she hanged herself in 1999. 4.48 Psychosis is the play Kane wrote just before her death, an angry, bitter, deeply disturbed and disturbing meditation on her own psychotic condition and her desire to die. The title refers to the time of the morning when most suicides occur.
The play doesn’t pretend to be more than a psychodrama, taking place entirely within Kane’s fragmented mind. Mindy Parfitt’s Horseshoes & Hand Grenades Theatre production is set in a stark white room with walls of stretched nylon fabric, apparently lit by only a single fluorescent. Ana Cappellutto’s set and lighting design, along with Antoine Bédard’s screeching soundscape of white noise, effectively create much of the play’s paranoid ambience. Colleen Wheeler, Alexa Devine, and Sean Devine perform the text, address the audience directly except in a few instances where Wheeler plays a psychiatrist interviewing her patient.
The play certainly gets in yer face. Kane obviously loathed both the medical system that tried unsuccessfully to treat her and the world she wasn’t ever able to feel comfortable enough to live in. The audience becomes a surrogate for both those targets, as the actors face out front cursing, complaining, and sometimes screaming about the stupidity and futility of it all. But Kane hated her damaged self more than anything else, and the character’s harshest words are self-directed. “I’m sad, I’m fat, I can’t love, I want to kill myself.” And that’s not the half of it.
Colleen Wheeler proves again that she’s the best dramatic actress in Vancouver. No one does despair, quiet or explosive, better than she. Alexa and Sean Devine also successfully convey the terrible abject pain Kane felt at the end of her life.
But the script is self-defeating. Repetitive and whiney, the language rarely sings: “Nothing can extinguish this anger…nothing can fill this void in my heart.” And the attempts at metaphor fall flat, as when she describes herself “burning in a hot tunnel of dismay.” I’m sorry to see any human being in such agony and it’s sad such a promising artist is gone. But the play itself is little more than an attempt at catharsis that failed as both art and personal salvation.