Review – 4:48 Psychosis – Royal Opera House at Lyric Hammersmith, London

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This opera is remarkable on many fronts. First, it is the first adaptation of the works of Sarah Kane for opera. Her star is truly in ascendance, fifteen years after her death: Sheffield Theaters mounted a Sarah Kane season featuring all of her works last year, and she’s finally made it to the National (with Cleansed) in 2016. Given the strength of her artistic vision and the power of her prose, it seems very appropriate for her work to be picked up for the medium of opera.

Second, this production marks the culmination of a collaboration between the Royal Opera House and the Guildhall School of Music and Drama to create a doctoral degree in opera composition. Philip Venables is the first person to make it through the program, and 4:48 Psychosis is, in effect, his dissertation (the residency comes with a commitment to produce the work created during its three year duration).

4:48 Psychosis describes an experience of being hospitalized (and released, and rehospitalized) while severely depressed. It can’t be considered a spoiler to say that the protagonist kills herself at the end; knowledge of Kane’s death hangs heavily over every word of the play, over every dismissive comment the medical personnel make to the protagonist, and casts a shadow of heartbreaking irony over comments such as, “I don’t want it [my suicide] to be mistaken as a cry for help.” This personal, internal journey is portrayed through an ensemble of six singers, one of whom (Gweneth-Ann Rand) seems most clearly to be the protagonist, and one of whom (Lucy Schaufer) frequently takes a role of a doctor. At times all of the group works together, singing the protagonist’s thoughts, like a Greek chorus of internal despair; at other times they split, sometimes along doctor patient lines, sometimes in various configurations that present warring ideas.

But Venables has done more than just sing Kane’s words. The ensemble sometimes is given silence (and motion) while the singing (or breathing) comes through speakers; the words themselves frequently appear in bold, crisp text on the back of the set. Kane’s
web of non-dialogue, of running madness filtered through a powerful intelligence, slams into us in print, on the monitors, from the singers, from a recording. It is a wall of multisensory despair, punishing to experience so clearly elucidated. And yet some of the most traumatic moments come when the voices fall away; when the conversations that will lead to a brilliant mind’s snuffing out are held, visibly doctor and patient, but aurally between a drum and a metal pole. The dispassionate, unconnected doctor is pinged and twanged, her text bleating, “It’s not your fault” while the sounds show the lie of compassion in her words; the protagonist, vibrantly experiencing the truth of this game playing, booms back via the drum, the simple repudiation of her text as powerfully expressed as Jesus’ rebuke of Judas. The protagonist knows she cannot survive this torture; the doctor knows she must not drop her guard. The audience can only watch as this game, in which psychoactive drugs take the place of human contact, plays out to its inevitable conclusion. And, in the end, having heard exactly why life was so terrible, it is devastating to realize that the protagonist’s despair could not be argued against. Being alive is painful. If you notice this too strongly, the bad will drown you. And being this helpless in the face of so much despair is heartbreaking. It is a very appropriate operatic experience and will hopefully be revived shortly after this four day run.

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