If you asked a stranger what sound conveys clinical depression, suicidal thoughts or psychosis, the grinding noise a handsaw being drawn through wood would feel like a decent answer. For all its schlock-horror connotations, it is still oppressively belligerent: the sound of a head splitting open or bones being crunched. It’s almost impossible to listen to for more than a few moments without wanting to scream or cry. And it’s used to devastating effect in this Lyric Hammersmith/Royal Opera House revival of Philip Venables’ opera, based on Sarah Kane’s final play 4.48 Psychosis.
The latter was first performed in the Royal Court’s Theatre Upstairs a year after her suicide. It’s a brutal masterpiece for sure, but its clear-eyed, unapologetic deep dive into the bowels of despair never amounts to ugliness. It is a piece of writing in which lyricism and rhythm carry the weight of Kane’s experimental pursuit of self-expression through contextless fragments of text for unspecified characters.
That Venables used 4.48 Psychosis as the base for a contemporary opera, which garnered Olivier and Southbank Award nominations in 2016, makes complete sense. In his hands, Kane’s always-eloquent howls of despair become a beautiful, polyphonic cacophony of noise. The excoriating sound of the saw becomes not a pop-culture play on fear, but the feeling left by the abrasive comments of a well-adjusted doctor to his suffering patient.
It forms part of several call-and-response exchanges between psychiatrist and patient that are among the highlights of this one-act, 90-minute opera, which is performed with six voices and the Chroma Ensemble. Beaten out on two timpani and including, among other items, a hammer on metal and a bicycle bell for punctuation and intonation, they are strangely relatable, moving passages, which are even humorous at times. With the accompanying dialogue projected onto the walls of the clinical, off-white psychiatric ward set below the ensemble, it sums up the kind of attention to detail that defines the work. Levity heightens the despair as the words come with ironic, heart-quickenly perfect timing.
In between these exchanges there are interludes of spoken voiceover, passages of elevator muzak-ish stuff, a projected list of medication and their awful side-effects and, of course, the haunting voices of six identically clad (in the grey-toned jeans and cardigan combo beloved of people who want to disappear) singers, lead by Gweneth-Ann Rand and Lucy Schaufer, who loosely act out the doctor-patient relationship.
These six human zombies become like fragments of a single persona; the same but different, they perform on their own and also in harmony. Kane’s text feels reassuringly unforced in its sung form – unlike many a strained libretto – but despair is always nestled amid the beauty. The singers float aimlessly around the stage, occasionally coming together for a more structured scene. While it’s an effective means of conveying the listlessness of depression, it leaves the audience little to engage with, and the ensemble becomes the focus for long periods.
For a shortish evening of fragmentary passages, 4.48 Psychosis certainly isn’t fleet-of-foot. There’s a languishing quality about it that makes it feel much longer than 90 minutes. No doubt, this is deliberately so. But while Venables’ work astonishes with its ability to create a powerful, authentic-feeling score from Kane’s rollercoaster of despair, the overall effect is positively exhausting. Affecting, but exhausting.
4.48 Psychosis is at the Lyric Hammersmith until May 4th. For more details, click here.