As part of the Polska! Year season, Polish theatre company TR Warszawa stages Sarah Kane’s terrifyingly poetic 4.48 Psychosis, charting the horrific journey that leads from despair to suicide.
Set on the Barbican’s large stage, Magdalena Cielecka as the mentally ill protagonist looks too small, too fragile amongst the cold, clinical set. Half medical institution, half mirrored public toilets, it is an unsettling environment to stage such a disconcerting piece.
With no plot and no sense of time, location or context hinted at, Kane’s hour long final play is a literary suicide note, one woman’s stream of consciousness as she reveals her disturbed and tragic inner thoughts to a world of strangers. As numbers count down to an inevitable end, the woman on stage paces, begs, sits eerily still, violently spits out venomous words, stares at the audience expectantly, cries and laughs as she spirals through every emotion possible explaining the depression she finds herself bound by, no longer wanting to live.
At various points people enter the stage to interact with her and take over voicing her bleak and viciously angry monologue. A woman who embodies her lover physically restrains her, trying to keep her from escaping from her embrace, a man who appears to be a brother figure mocks her, spitting out pills and ignoring her demands, and an older man, who coldly tries to persuade her she must accept her illness, takes on the role of one of many faceless doctors who prescribe a variety of pills, none of which succeed in burying the immense anger she feels.
Kane’s powerful and often frightening play cannot be taken at face value, knowing that the young playwright took her own life before the piece made it to the stage. It is impossible to ignore that the protagonist who is begging repeatedly to be touched, to be loved, to be rescued is indeed Kane herself. Not light theatre then. But the beautifully poetic script – with Kane’s dark humour affectionately mixed into the bleak dialogue – and fearless performances make this production a vital piece of theatre. It is as shocking, powerful and life-changing as live performance can aspire to be.
In some of the most provocative moments, Kane is paired with a younger and older version of herself, mirroring her movements and emotions. Nothing more is needed to highlight the tragedy of such a debilitating illness and the consequences of her final decision.