4.48 Psychosis: why is Sarah Kane’s last play considered so unstageable
A recent adaptation of the piece— directed by Srinivas Beesetty and produced by Bangalore Little Theatre — sheds light on the discomfort of telling mental health stories to the audience
By Reema Gowalla
Narrating stories of depression and anxiety on stage can be difficult, especially if the storyline sounds more like a ‘suicide note’ than the script of a play. End of the day, theatre is a form of art and its aesthetics are crucial to keeping the audience’s attention. But so is the need to remain honest to the playwright’s purpose behind writing the piece, isn’t it? This dilemma is possibly one of the reasons that over the years theatremakers around the world have avoided staging British playwright-director Sarah Kane’s enigmatic yet distressing plays. A bright and promising writer, the 28-year-old took her life at King’s College Hospital in London in 1999, after years of suffering from clinical depression. Among her notable plays are Blasted, Skin and Cleansed, but it’s often her last play, 4.48 Psychosis, which was performed for the first time at the Royal Court in 2000, that causes discomfort to the hilt.
Bengaluru recently witnessed an adaptation of 4.48 Psychosis, and the director and actors of the play admit that it’s been a tough journey. “Stories about mental health ought to be dealt with care and discretion. But this particular piece was also intimidating at the same time. The vivid and raw nature of the text made it difficult for us to detach from it when not at rehearsals, let alone taking artistic liberties during its making,” says actor Shatarupa Bhattacharyya, who portrays a state of Sarah’s mind, in which she has already gone through a lot in life, and has now “accepted and made peace with the fact that death is her final destination”.
The other two stages — “realising that her depression is more serious than what it looks like” and “worried about figuring out how to get through it” — are essayed by actors Durga Venkatesan and Yeshaswini Channaiah respectively. “Much of Sarah’s writing is personal and layered. And the only way to understand that trajectory is by reading her works. So, my journey in this project began by trying to comprehend her previously written plays,” says Durga.
It all began with multiple reading sessions, followed by discussions and deliberations. “Much like her disturbed mind at the time of writing this play — jostling in her room to make drafts at wee hours, which is also precisely why the play is titled so — the script is disjointed, non-linear and clustered, making it very difficult for anyone to understand it in the first go. There are no specific characters in the play nor does it follow a well-defined narrative style. Obviously, it isn’t an easy watch for the audience either, as there is a constant sense of distress and discomfort among all. The plot demands a deeper analysis of what mental health issues are — what’s the right way to attend to people suffering from depression; how empathetic and compassionate one needs to be; and who decides on the extent of medication and institutional care,” Shatarupa elaborates.
A Bangalore Little Theatre (BLT) production, the play is directed by Srinivas Beesetty, with Naman Roy as the assistant director, who has also acted in the play. The other artistes include Shreyan Saraswat. Choreography is done by Adrienn Izsepi, and music is by Geetanjali Katla and Sajal.
4.48 Psychosis is a ‘choreopoem’ that follows the upheavals of a girl’s psyche, who really wanted to live but was never in love with life. Replete with shocking confessions, piercing monologues and raw visuals, there aren’t any positive takeaways from the one-hour-12-minute performance to be honest. In fact, there have been instances in the past when audiences have requested to open the curtains while watching it. There are persistent references made to the ‘Sylvia Plath effect’, while the other motifs of the narrative include ‘hatch opens, stark light’ and a bedside test used by psychiatrists, called ‘serial sevens’.
So, what inspired the makers to pick such a topic? “Being someone who himself has struggled with mental health issues in the past, reading Sara’s works made me feel like a miniature self navigating her mind. She was literally living to die. I could feel how she was torn between hopefulness and her own reality. There was also a strong sense of love for someone, who was virtually non-existent. Who knows it could also be self-love or her desire to find someone — a ray of hope that would serve as a purpose for living,” says Srinivas, adding, “Reading the play multiple times, once as part of Kahe Vidushak Foundation’s Natya Alochan, gave me a different perspective of the script. After entering a collaboration with BLT, we further devised and worked on it, before premiering the play in the city on November 13. The interpretations and responses that we have received so far have not been very pleasant, of course, with many even seeing it as an example of ‘theatre of cruelty’. In the arts, we are so used to discourses on mental health being measured, subtle or expressed only in parts that any deviation seems out of the mould, ambitious or risky. But sometimes, even the extremes need to be told.”
According to Durga, the script may seem disjointed on the surface, but for her as an actor, it was important to tap into Sarah’s emotions and the pain that she was going through to be able to portray it on stage. “It was like revisiting my therapy sessions and my conversations with parents at home. What you see on stage is not just me playing a character, or in this case a state of Sarah’s mind. Bringing out my own pain and emotions became pertinent to be honest with the role I essayed on stage,” she explains.
Echoing similar thoughts, Shatarupa says, “There were days when I would have to take a break after the rehearsals and probably engage in some mundane and mindless things just to take my attention off the script. All of us have battled anxiety issues at some point of our life, and working on this piece has absorbed us to a great extent. There were a few who left the play in the beginning itself, because it was just too much to cope with it mentally. In terms of takeaway, we didn’t want to preach anything, but just narrate a story. Mental health issues are still a stigma in our society, so telling such an account is bound to have repercussions. The narrative is dotted by fragments of love, desire, dependency, companionship and abjection, and how they eventually take a toll on Sarah mentally and physically. It’s a story of pain, so does that make it unsayable?”