29 October 2004

Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Evisceration

I don't go to plays much anymore, and I don't keep up with the theatre world as I once did, but if I had the time to get to New York this week, I would do anything I could do to get a ticket to see Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis at St. Ann's Warehouse. Ben Brantley's excellent review for the Times explains what the play is quite well:
Written as a refutation of reasons to live by Ms. Kane not long before she hanged herself at 28 in a London hospital five years ago, "4:48 Psychosis" is charged with the raging verbal energy of someone trying to make sense of a situation long beyond the reach of rational thought.

To say anything in "4:48 Psychosis" becomes a Sisyphean venture - defiant and pathetic - in the eclipsing shadow of this writer's anguish. In part by virtue of its very futility, Ms. Kane's language creates the most persuasive and authentic portrait of what it means to be terminally depressed that I have ever encountered in a theater. The words may be useless as lifelines, but they definitely leave their marks on those who hear them.
It's a daunting text for any director or group of actors to approach -- no set is defined, no cast or characters delineated, just a series of poem-like phrases and fragments, some of them horrifying, some of them funny, some tedious, some beautiful. Michael Billington's original Guardian review summed up the challenge of the play in the headline: "How do you judge a 75-minute suicide note?" (Brantley used the suicide note description in his own review -- not a lack of originality on his part so much as an acknowledgment that Billington pegged it perfectly.)

Kane was part of the late-nineties phenomenon of young British playwrights who got labelled as "the New Brutalists" or purveyors of "In-yer-face" theatre -- plays that portrayed sadistic violence, tremendous cruelty, and worlds deranged by chaos (kind of like John Webster or Seneca or even Euripides). Her first play, Blasted, got savaged by critics who thought its vivid representations of mutilation and rape to be nihilistic and gratuitous, and their ire brought Kane more publicity than she knew what to do with (she was only in her mid-twenties then). Her later play Cleansed seems to me to be her best work, her most unified dramatic statement, though almost unbearably grotesque. Crave marked a departure for her into a more abstract form of playwrighting, and 4.48 Psychosis was the, unfortunately premature, culmination of the exploration begun with Crave.

What Kane was able to do was use her medium to its fullest. Cleansed cannot be staged realistically on an average theatre's budget (for instance, one character's feet get chopped off then carried away by rats), and so it forces producers to approach the work as a creative problem to be solved. The solutions in the best productions are simple and symbolic rather than gory. This is art that realizes it must be presented to a live audience and must utilize the weaknesses of its medium as strengths. It is art that defies realism in search of better modes of communicating, the modes of poetry and ritual and dream.

Kane is not a playwright on the level of, for instance, Caryl Churchill, because she died, I think, before she had really developed into the writer she could and should have been. (And it's unfair to compare anyone to Caryl Churchill, who, if I were forced into the unfortunate corner of having to name the single greatest living playwright in the English language, would be my choice.) But Kane's work is remarkable, even though it is raw, even though it sometimes overreaches or strains for uncertain effect, even though an insensitive production can make the writing seem violent for its own sake. Nonetheless, there is a vitality and an energy to her work -- dare I say it, a moral energy -- that is certainly rare and nearly unique.

The effect of Kane's best plays is to eviscerate the audience. It is theatre that is not simply in yer face, nor is it merely brutal -- the effect is horrifying and jolting, but also numbing and absurd. It is the painful paradox of horror and apathy that fills Kane's plays with their fire. Done right, her best plays fuse language with imagery in such a way as to unsettle an audience so deeply that new and terrifying perspectives are available when you exit the theatre. The only comparable writer I can think of is Wallace Shawn, but Shawn's effect is primarily intellectual and linguistic, while Kane's work has that and more.

Quoting from her scripts is pointless. Read them to see the possibilities. Not all plays are interesting to read, but hers are. They are searing and haunting. There is also a good overview of her work, Love Me or Kill Me: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes, which, in addition to a discussion of each play (particularly Blasted and the controversy it created), includes interviews with various people involved in her life and her productions.

4.48 Psychosis may seem like a relentless cry for help. In some ways it was (or, perhaps, a refusal of help), but it is also art -- it is shaped experience, and shaped so carefully that within its sharp-edged shards it contains the ability to help us see a world many people turn away from. I know of no other piece of writing of any sort that so vividly portrays what it is like to experience severe, debilitating, life-threatening depression. It doesn't make for a light evening of theatre, but it does make for a profound experience.

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