Posts Tagged ‘Sarah Kane’

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

June 17, 2016

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.

Review – Cleansed – Katie Mitchell directing, National Theater

February 22, 2016

Although the National Theater’s website warned that Cleansed “[c]ontains graphic scenes of physical and sexual violence,” I did not expect that my evening in the Dorfman would be one of such an extreme nature that an audience member would be carried away, fainting, midshow. (“We get a few every night,” said the man in the cloakroom afterwards, also kindly suggesting I have a sit down to help me deal with what I’d just witnessed.)

I had really discounted the notice as a bit of protective hype, but the show that I got – full of rape, gore, torture, abuse, nudity, sex, and cruelty – operated at a level that seemed designed to batter the audience. Gloucester’s blinding, the maiming of Lavinia … these were moments of theatrical horror, but as arranged in this show the brutal moments were placed so snugly against one another that there was no room to breathe, and the violence in Sarah Kane’s text became nonsensical.

I decided the way to process it was to imagine that, in fact, I had signed up for a night at the Grand Guignol. The relationships that developed between the characters were truly works of fiction existing only to heighten the sensation of horror; the people we were watching, seemingly, suffer, were merely actors playing a role which they would repeat nearly exactly in the next performance. No one was being hurt physically or emotionally, no matter what the bursts of stressed out sweat coming off the man sitting next to me might say. It was fake shots, fake rape, fake suicide and fake murder, all bundled up to deliver the most heightened experience possible. And, although it looked like we were going to have vomiting and emptied bladders/bowels, those lines were not crossed. (Although I think on some nights the vomiting might happen.) I had to <I>actively</I> distance myself from what was happening on stage to get through the show.

Er, so, what about the story? Cleansed seems to me a mélange of short pieces tied together poorly with its asylum setting. We have a woman seeking her lost brother; a gay couple the authorities are attempting to get to betray each other a la 1984; and a peep show stripper being manipulated by a stranger. I couldn’t feel that there was really an overarching narrative to this, although the desire for human connection ran through all of the scenes like a knife slash across a belly: bleeding, dripping, wrenching in its reality. But these threads did not ultimately make a plot, and while each was sharply (horrifically) acted, I couldn’t help but feel all I had was tacked together sketches – or, perhaps, surgical staples across the wound of Kane’s script.

In the end, Cleansed will find its audience; fans of Katie Mitchell, fans of Sarah Kane (myself) … but, I think not in a way Kane would have wanted, fans of gore who come for a night of gut turning theatrical trickery. It’s not what I want to see on stage, but there’s got to be somebody out there who enjoys it; I just wonder if this really, really in any way is how this script was meant to come across.

(This review is for a preview performance that took lace on Friday, February 19th, 2016. It continues through May 5th. It took me three days to recover from how deeply disturbed this show left me. You have been warned.)