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Reviews

<em>4.48 Psychosis</em>: ROH at Lyric Hammersmith
25 Apr 2018

Philip Venables: 4.48 Psychosis

Madness - or perhaps, more widely, insanity - in opera goes back centuries. In Handel’s Orlando (1733) it’s the dimension of a character’s jealousy and betrayal that drives him to the state of delusion and madness. Mozart, in Idomeneo, treats Electra’s descent into mania in a more hostile and despairing way. Foucault would probably define these episodic operatic breakdowns as “melancholic”, ones in which the characters are powerless rather than driven by acts of personal violence or suicide.

4.48 Psychosis: ROH at Lyric Hammersmith

A review by Marc Bridle

4.48 Psychosis: ROH at Lyric Hammersmith

Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey

 

Not until Bellini’s I Puritani and Donizetti’s Lucia Di Lammermoor did the gender disparity between the more masculine mania and the feminisation of the melancholic become obscured. It was only at the beginning of the Twentieth Century that opera ceased to treat madness and insanity as the apex of the operatic mad scene, and more the full-scale development of its psychological development throughout the entire span of an opera, as we get in Strauss’s Elektra and Berg’s Wozzeck. With Strauss and Berg, the psychological opera is born.

Philip Venables’s 4.48 Psychosis, drawn from the final full-scale play of Sarah Kane, is something of a mythological beast. Of all Kane’s dramatic works, it is the one that comes closest to opera because, of all her theatrical pieces, it is the one that least fits the description of a modern play. Written without a dramatis personae, it appears on the page as a monologue, often seeming to fully scale the heights of stream of consciousness in the way the words drench the pages. It’s unusually poetic, too. The words have a soaring, literary beauty to them that are muscular, but intensely musical: “the capture/the rupture/the rapture/of a soul… a solo symphony”.

4.48 Psychosis has often been viewed, because Kane killed herself so soon after it was completed, as a suicide note - and the unusual structure of the work has probably cemented this idea as much as any other. However, this is a piece of drama that blazes with historical awareness of its art form, much as Venables’s treatment of the text does so as music. Just as Kane embraces the Theatre of the Absurd of Artaud and Ionescu, and even Beckett, so Venables looks to the example of a composer like Berg: there are the veins of palpably dense serialism for the violas, the sudden orchestral flare-ups on the baritone saxophones, the stark, yet rather tenebrous, orchestration, the symmetry of two spatially separated percussionists. The threads of this music can be surprisingly dark, almost as if they are describing the moment a mind fragments. Venables has been careful to create a symbiotic balance between the music and the words of Kane’s canvas - so, the percussionists tap out their notes like Morse code, but there is a rhythm and tempo to the music that frames the meaning of the text. Every part of Kane’s vast monologue is composed for - so even full-stops and question-marks are given a musical equivalent, such as a buzzer or a bell. There are hammers and saws which articulate the inner voices of a psychotic mind in its bleakest moments of despair.

Kane herself said that “performance is visceral” and the experience of seeing 4.48 Psychosis, I think, need not necessarily be wedded to one’s own experience of mental illness; for many, however, it will resemble it. Whilst it is primarily about psychiatric disintegration, it is also about love, albeit the loss of love: “cut out my tongue/tear out my hair/cut off my limbs/but leave me my love”. Psychosis is an internal civil war, and this production doesn’t shirk from confronting that conflict. The use of an ensemble cast - often singing in unison - seeks to define psychosis through multiple voices and personalities, but it also somewhat catalyses mental illness into distinct sections. You watch from the point of view as the victim, as the lover, as a doctor. That love should be unrequited is connected to the depression experienced: “I cannot go on I cannot fucking go on without expressing this terrible so fucking awful physical aching fucking longing I have for you. And I cannot believe I feel this for you and that you feel nothing. Do you feel nothing?” That “love” is in some respects a bond between the patient and their doctor - and it is certainly implied as such in this production where the role of a doctor figure is given some prominence. But Kane is scathing about the relationship - and of modern medicine. Zopiclone, Melleril and Lofepramine are prescribed to restore sanity, but are withdrawn because of the side-effects; in the end, they simply become the tools of suicide.

Gweneth-Ann Rand.jpgGweneth-Ann Rand. Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

Given the power of Kane’s source material - and the sheer beauty of her prose - so little needs to be done to develop the libretto for dramatic purposes. It rather stands on its own. From a musical point of view, the monologue and fragments of speech probably assume greater vocal colour and describe more devastatingly the unrelenting despair and “black snow” of mental decline if taken by an ensemble of voices than if by a single voice - as they are in Erwartung, for example. Culturally, mania, insanity and suicide are often questionable - but here the production embraces them, even if the salient effects of it are to present it in traumatic terms. Ted Huffman’s production, with its slabs of grey and nakedly-shone glass doors, is almost entirely vacant - like a mind that has already collapsed into despair. Colours are entirely neutral. Against the grey walls are typed out parts of Kane’s play. Despite the utter barrenness of the production, which works on its own terms, it constantly threw up literary allusions: Biblical words, and references to Judaism, recalled Sylvia Plath’s lampshades made of skin, and the final scene with the body lying on the table reminded me of TS Eliot’s “When the evening is spread out against the sky/Like a patient etherized upon a table” from The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock. Neither Plath, nor Eliot, escaped the devastation of mental illness either.

Lucy Hall, Gweneth-Ann Rand and Lucy Schaufer.jpgLucy Hall, Gweneth-Ann Rand and Lucy Schaufer. Photo credit: Stephen Cummiskey.

I don’t think one can praise the singing of the Gwyneth-Ann Rand enough. She sang not only beautifully, but with considerable power and raw emotion. When she sang “I REFUSE I REFUSE I REFUSE LOOK AWAY FROM ME” you really believed in her complete isolation and her rejection. It was an utterly devastating moment. She was ably supported by Lucy Schaufer, Rachel Lloyd, Susanna Hurrell, Lucy Hall and Samantha Price - all of whom, as an ensemble, were superbly well-matched. The hive-like nature of the singing, with the singers rotating the roles of the patient and doctor, gave added complexity to the voice shadows. Richard Baker, conducting CHROMA, who were on outstanding form, brought a huge amount of kaleidoscopic detail to the score. This is music that is deceptively well-balanced - constrained enough, given the unorthodox orchestration, not to overwhelm the singers, but powerful enough in scenes such as the 100-steps, where the music takes on the sounds of computer game music, to be both gripping and sound menacing. That this music should sound both so rhythmic and yet so flexible was something of a bonus.

There is enough black humour in this production (though it’s sometimes hard to see it) to offset the impression its subject matter might be otherwise. In part, the assumption has always been that 4.48 Psychosis is Sarah Kane’s bleakest work because it is so inextricably linked to her own suicide. It is certainly the case that internal dimensions of the play’s narrative, such as they are, define the very premise of manic psychosis - and in particular, Kane’s description of madness from waking up repeatedly at 4.48, morning after morning. Venables and Huffman have given us a very different perspective on this work than one might expect to see in the theatre; though, if nothing else, Venables’s 4.48 Psychosis is simply the most recent, and perhaps most graphic, example of psychological opera.

At Lyric Hammersmith 26th, 28th, 30th April, 2nd, 4th May 2018

Marc Bridle

Philip Venables: 4.48 Psychosis based on the play by Sarah Kane

Singers: Gwyneth-Ann Rand/Lucy Schaufer/Rachel Lloyd/Susanna Hurrell/Lucy Hall/Samantha Price

Conductor: Richard Baker/CHROMA; Director: Ted Huffman; Designer: Hannah Clark; Lighting: D.M.Wood; Video: Pierre Martin; Sound: Sound Intermedia

Royal Opera Production at Lyric Hammersmith; 24th April 2018.

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