Philip Venables’ opera-theatre version of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis is having its world premiere as part of the 2019 PROTOTYPE festival and, if you’re familiar with Kane’s work, it is a recognizable adaptation. Venables’ libretto is crafted directly from the source text and the anger and hopelessness of Kane’s play is brought to musical life through affecting orchestration. It also falls into a common trap of staging Kane’s play – it’s stuck on the ending and lacks dramatic variation.
Kane committed suicide shortly after finishing 4.48 Psychosis, but the play contains more than an explanation of her act. In Kane’s text, an unnamed speaker explains their mental instability, the shifting changes they are constantly experiencing, and their struggle to achieve understanding with doctors and loved ones. Kane’s protagonist is invested in their wellness, but unable to find the assistance required to get there. It is a text full of struggle, of this push-pull between internal and external factors that all contribute to mental and physical decline. Too often, Kane’s suicide is taken as the conceptual center of productions of Psychosis and the character’s path is more of a loop than a descent, stripping the text of its dramatic propulsion.
Since there are no delineations made in Kane’s text for how many actors are required for performance, the voicing is open to interpretation. Venables has chosen to set his libretto for one central woman (sung by Gweneth-Ann Rand) and five women representing her internal voices or impulses. This makes for some intricate, sonically unique choral music when they all sing together, but its dramatic possibilities are not explored. One of the woman occasionally steps out to play a doctor, but for the most part, the five voices are united against the central character and she is terrified of them. If they are meant to represent her inner life, why are some of them not on her side? Why are there five of them if they all have the same perspective? Venables’ composition does not answer these questions.
Nor does the physical production, directed by Ted Huffman and designed by Hannah Clark and D.M. Wood. The five voices move around Clark’s white box backing Rand into corners or holding her to the floor. With little change in the dramatic narrative, the possibilities for staging are limited as a result. The most effective moments are in interludes where Pierre Martin’s video design takes over the box, plunging the singers and audience into the sinister countdowns and count-arounds of Kane’s text.
Venables’ music is at its most thrilling in these moments, too. He relies heavily on three saxophones to punctuate the driving beat of the interludes. The combination of this pumping and the richness of the other instruments, playing in slashing rhythms and in discordant response to each other, fashions a musical world that illuminates the central character’s internal life better than the five voices can. There is a buoyancy and drive to this music that demonstrates the turmoil of a brain at war with itself.
Venables’ other breathtaking decision is to have the doctor’s “voice” replaced with abrasive percussion like a metal hammer rapping on a steel pipe, the rat-a-tat-tat of a snare drum, and a hacksaw grinding through wood. These alternative orchestrations go further to demonstrate the effect of the doctor’s words on the patient than the human voice could. It was in these moments that the adaptation earned its keep; here, the opera-theatre version of Kane’s play reached a level the original text cannot, limited as it is with only the spoken voice.