4:48 Psychosis

Sarah Kane. Canberra Youth Theatre. The Courtyard Studio. 15 Nov 2012

The 1990s seemed to be when depression in young people unexpectedly burst out of the closet and became ubiquitous via the arts: grunge music and the book Prozac Nation are the first examples that spring to mind, but among other examples there was also 4:48 Psychosis, written by English playwright Sarah Kane.

Suffering with severe depression herself, Kane committed suicide not long after completing 4:48 Psychosis (The name of the play was derived from the time Kane woke every morning). Being so close to the subject and in such a distraught state of mind at the time of writing, her work is an intense and intimate exploration of mental illness.

Rather than having a specific plot or storyline, 4:48 Psychosis explores depression in two-dozen disjointed fragments that eventually come full circle at the conclusion. The play was also written with little direction regarding its characters or stage design, leaving these details highly open to interpretation.

Kane’s work, among others, would later be classified as part of what is now British ‘In Yer Face’ theatre, a provocative movement designed to shock, disturb and revolt the audience out of apathy. The Canberra Youth Theatre and director Karla Conway have truly embraced this massive agenda, crafting a production that is brilliantly challenging, as well as deeply disturbing and extremely uncomfortable to watch.

Creating the most suffocating and distorted of environments possible, the cast provides a hyper-real insight into the extent of distress and hopelessness that depression gives rise to for sufferers, but also the frustration of those watching them being slowly consumed by their own minds.

With no character names given it is impossible to pinpoint the qualities of any particular actor in the all-female cast. However, each young woman (Hannah Baker, Clare Cavanagh, Noemie Huttner, Nathalie Morris, Jenna O’Connor and Lizzie Ward-Smith) was utterly convincing, individually bringing raw and remarkable strengths to the stage as well as having an electrifying collective chemistry. One can only imagine the amount of emotional plumbing involved in such a demanding, nightmarish production, and they each navigated this terrain with commitment and fortitude.

The sound design (Michael Foley) and music composition (Rose Ottley) were valuable accompaniments to the highly charged environment, skilfully reflecting the swings in ambience from relentless melancholy to unhinged white rage. Equally, the lighting by Samantha Pickering perfectly portrayed a cold, harsh and unforgiving mental landscape, infiltrated with precious rare moments of hope, humour and clarity.

Hanna Sandgren’s sterile, utilitarian set design was simple but effective, with little but featureless plastic curtains and acrobatic silks rigged to the ceiling that were used to full creative potential.

4:48 Psychosis is not the play you want to see if you are feeling mentally fragile in any way. However, if you’re up for some confronting, gut wrenching theatre that will shake you to the core and shatter any notion that mental illness is glamorous, then get along and see this showcase of Canberra’s up and coming.

Deborah Hawke

When: 15 to 21 Nov
Where: The Courtyard Studio
Bookings: canberratheatrecentre.com.au