Jeremy's Ramblings, Babblings, and Other Pretentious Bullshit.
Tuesday, November 22, 2005
So, in February, I will be directing a production of Sarah Kane's "4.48 Psychosis". It is the final play of Sarah Kane, one of England's most important playwrights. She wrote five brutal, uncompromising plays and then hung herself at the age of 28. "4.48 Psychosis" was her final play, written one week before her suicide. It is basically her suicide note, expressed in theatrical form.
Upon reading the script over a year ago, I had a revelation that I had not yet experienced. I said to myself, "I want to direct this, and I know exactly how I want to do it." I had never thought of myself as a director until then. But as I swam through the beautiful, haunting text, I said to myself, "All I'd need is one actress, one table and two chairs, and I could make this work. I just want to focus on the words and not show off by doing a bunch of unnecessary shit."
Shortly thereafter, however, I started hearing about other productions of the show popping up around the country, doing exactly what I was going against. The first was a touring version of the premiere production seen at the Royal Court Theatre in 2001. Despite being directed by someone who knew Kane personally, the production (which came complete with three actors, a video-projected streetscape and a gigantic mirror on the back of the stage) seemed counterproductive and disconnected from the text.
Still, I thought to myself, "It's not bad. Just different from how I'd do it." I started bugging the Hunger Artists Theatre about the project, mentioning it to them on an average of every other week. Soon, it was on the list of projects being considered for the 2006 season.
Then, I heard about a second touring production of "4.48 Psychosis" that was coming around. This time, it was a widely acclaimed production that came out of France. It contained only two actors this time, the first being French film star Isabelle Huppert (the second actor stayed behind a scrim, playing her psychiatrist in certain scenes). The production was notable for keeping its lead actress standing at attention, showing little emotion and making even less movement, for a long hour and forty-five minutes (the piece generally runs an hour, maybe a little longer). While the intentions were good, the lack of anything coming from Ms. Huppert (along with the only intermittent supertitles translating the French) seemed to disconnect the audience from the text yet again.
Still, I said to myself, "Okay, while that just seems silly, the director had noble intentions, and was simply doing something different from what I want to." In the meantime, we read the work in the reading series I host, the theatre secured rights to the piece and it was slotted for February 2006.
Then, just today, I read about another overstylized production of "4.48 Psychosis" in Chicago that just upsets me. The casting of no less than six actors in the piece was just the beginning of my frustration. Here are some samples from today's glowing review in The Chicago Sun-Times...
"...a production in which the audience literally encircles you at every turn, standing so close, in fact, that the pores of your skin are fully visible."
"...the audience first gathers outside the playing area that is enclosed by plastic tarps. Once inside, the play unfolds on three elevated platforms."
"There she is surrounded by a chorus of three 'Macbeth'-like witches...in hoop skirts and headdresses topped by naked baby dolls impaled on stakes."
"Allison Siple's disturbed clown costumes are inspired."
"All the while, the audience mills around these staging areas, watching as [lead actress Stacy] Stoltz rants on about swallowing pills, opening a vein or hanging from a noose."
"At two crucial moments [director Sean] Graney even has this trio call a 'time out,' during which the actors and audience are able take a much-needed break from the intensity, even sharing some tangerines."
Witches? Clowns? Tangerines? What show is this? This can't be "4.48 Psychosis", can it? This show with naked baby dolls impaled on stakes? I understand that this kind of imagery would not out of place in, say, "Phaedra's Love" or "Cleansed", but "4.48"? Really? Really?
The worst part is that the critics like it. The Chicago Sun-Times called it "startling and audacious", saying that "in director-designer Sean Graney...it has found an ideal interpreter." The Chicago Tribune called it "compelling", saying that it is "a series of bold strokes" (although they did point out "It's a bit much. There are times when Graney's production takes a theatrically jazzy way out of an exceedingly dark corner").
I am still sticking to my idea of keeping it minimal, limiting it to one woman, focusing on the text. But my mind keeps going to an observation made by Ms. Kane herself: "what is much more important than the content of a play is its form."
So what would she think of these productions? How would she feel knowing that the destructive parts of her former brain are being represented by a trio of what the Tribune described as "specters of doom dressed as punk Marie Antoinettes"? What if the content IS all the form you really need?
One of my good friends explained that the different between those productions and what I intend to do is that their theatrical gimmicks serve as a way of releasing the audience from the piece's raw, brutal power. I, however, do not want to let the audience go until the final blackout. I want them to feel the pain and tragedy of the piece, to let the words cling to them after they've left the theatre. I can't possibly be the only person who wants to do the show that way.
I think about the reading that we had of the piece. Jessica Topliff, wearing standard clothing and sitting in a chair under our fluorescent work lights, read the script, and after five months of hosting readings, I have not seen the company respond as strongly as they did to Kane's work.
So, I forge ahead, original plan intact, unfazed by the productions of others. Charles Isherwood of The New York Times said that there may never be a definitive production of "4.48 Psychosis" on stage. I hope to prove him wrong.
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