By Sarah Kane. Directed by Mindy Parfitt. Produced by Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Theatre. At the Firehall Arts Centre on Thursday, October 4. Continues until October 13
Horseshoes and Hand Grenades Theatre's interpretation of 4:48 Psychosis cuts like a razor, but it could be even sharper.
Sarah Kane's script was first produced in 2000, almost a year and a half after the British playwright hanged herself. The writer and her narrator are not one and the same, of course, but in this presentation of mental illness and suicide, the inevitable sense of autobiography contributes to the work's impact.
One of the lines in the text reads, "My mind is the subject of these bewildered fragments." The fragments present enormous interpretive challenges. The script reads like a long poem; no lines are assigned to characters, just a few scenes are implied, and much of the text is cryptic. The play is a prolonged howl of pain that leads to "an ineffectual moral spasm, the only alternative to murder".
Many of director Mindy Parfitt's choices illuminate the text the same way the fluorescent tube illuminates scenographer Ana Cappelluto's claustrophobic, all-white set: with lidless intensity. In the opening moments, the house lights stay up on the audience as one of the actors asks with accusatory desperation, "What do you offer your friends to make them so supportive?"
The performers in this mounting–Colleen Wheeler, and husband and wife Sean and Alexa Devine–share the text, switching voices between the narrator and her psychiatrists. This solid set of choices makes it clear the figures are archetypal, the dialogue is internal, and the loop is inescapable.
Parfitt also employs a choreographic vocabulary. At one point, for instance, Alexa Devine delivers a panicky speech while Wheeler simultaneously reaches out and backs up, whispering manically "How do I stop?", and Sean Devine twitches as if possessed. In this case, the movement supports the text. In others, it distracts. There's a passage in which Wheeler and Sean Devine perform a sequence of enigmatic gestures while, once again, Alexa Devine speaks. This movement score is too busy and is difficult to interpret. It ends up looking decorative, which trivializes the script. The evening could also have more of an arc and a clearer climax.
It's interesting to watch three of the best actors in town rise to the challenges of this play. Wheeler is so raw it's like she's been skinned. You never know where she's going to go but she makes clear transitions, even when she leaps directly from the narrator's furious "Fuck you!" to the doctor's calmly condescending, "Oh dear, you've hurt your arm."
Alexa and Sean Devine are both strong, but their work here is more limited. Alexa Devine is often on the edge of tears, which feels sentimental; the implied catharsis provides inappropriate relief. Her husband, Sean, repeats a predictable pattern in which containment erupts into fury.
For the audience, there could be something pornographic about getting off on the intensity of all of this pain. Ultimately, though, the experience of bearing witness can open the heart, and Kane's bravery is inspiring: despite her turmoil, she remained phenomenally creative and articulate.
Though it doesn't entirely fulfill its ambitious mandate, this production of 4:48 Psychosis is one of the most challenging–and satisfying–events you'll take in this season.