There is beauty, and there is wonder, in Sarah Kane’s final play, “4.48 Psychosis.” Beautiful is her angry, exquisite language. Beautiful is the striking, iridescent production by Royal Court, the latest offering from the UCLA Live International Theatre Festival. But it is a terrible beauty, a terrible wonder.
Surely most in the audience had an idea of what they were in for Thursday night. The slow march through the Freud Playhouse was practically funereal, as we walked past the empty seats and found our places on bleachers positioned on the stage for this intimate performance.
In 1999, Kane, who at 28 was already a disturbing, powerful voice in British theater, swallowed a quantity of sleeping pills. When that suicide attempt failed, she hanged herself in the hospital three days later.
What was she thinking? “4.48 Psychosis,” completed a week earlier, was what she was thinking. The play is the raw, awful, at times darkly funny, at other times starkly alarming, painful entree into a bleeding, decaying mind. Tender, rich experience is processed the wrong ways. Sparks fly where they shouldn’t. There is conflagration.
The terrible beauty and wonder is similar to that experienced when watching a forest fire. Every element, wood and flame are nature’s glorious creation, and the spectacle is, from afar, breathtaking. We also know the consequences. We know that up close, in the heat and destruction, beauty has no meaning. And yet the close-up news photographs of the forest fires are the most striking, the ones that attract us most, the ones that win the awards. Nature plays awful tricks on our senses.
The text of “4.48 Psychosis” is a series of poetic fragments, the close-ups of the last gasps of Kane’s mind, the gruesome tricks of nature, human and otherwise. The only stage directions are “silence,” “a long silence” and “a very long silence.” They appear frequently. For Kane, 4:48 in the morning was the precise moment for mental clarity, and it is that clarity that she reproduces here.
A great deal of this fragmented text exists as much for the page as for the stage. Royal Court, the London company that gave the premiere of “4.48 Psychosis” in 2000 and now brings the play to America for the first time, assigns these fragments to three characters. Actually, they are more voices than characters. Dressed in street clothes, Jason Hughes and Marin Ireland are from the original cast. Jo McInnes contributes a flatter, American accent to her demonstrative British colleagues, but she is, under it all, as panic stricken. Each, essentially, is a different persona for pain, and the three are superb.
Superb, too, is the radiant production by James Macdonald. A table and two chairs is the decor. Yet designer Jeremy Herbert also utilizes a raked mirror as backdrop, which reflects the actors. We see them from two angles. Through film projection, the table, in its reflection, turns into a window, with a scene of the street outside. Once or twice, the entire stage is made to flicker in a dappled projection. The lighting design by Nigel Edwards is radical and transfixing.
All this creates visual and theatrical jumble as a mirror into Kane’s mental states. Stopping, starting, stopping starting, Kane processes information in what she calls a “solo symphony,” investigates reality and never likes what she finds. Nothing extinguishes her anger, restores her faith. But her honesty and sense of humor are astonishing.
She doesn’t offer false hope. The beauty she presents us has nothing to do with the gifts a Puccini offers a suicide. Co-Co San kills herself, but we are left with melodies to hum once we’ve dried our tears. Kane doesn’t ask to be mourned. As determined as her suicide was -- she used shoelaces to hang herself -- she ultimately succumbs passively to defeat, death. It is simply time to vanish. The long silences extend.
“4.48 Psychosis” is an act of extraordinary bravery and clarity, bravery and clarity gone horribly wrong. One leaves this exceptional production not, perhaps, wiser (we still don’t know why she did it), certainly not happier. But we leave more aware of life’s complexity. And thus more alive.
Where: Freud Playhouse, UCLA, 405 Hilgard Ave., Westwood
When: 2, 6 and 8 p.m. today; 2 and 7 p.m. Sunday
Contact: (310) 825-2101
Running time: 1 hour