The handful of plays left by Sarah Kane before her suicide in 1999 had seemed predicated on a type of theatre resistant to being translated into other media. Philip Venables evidently had other ideas, using his position as Doctoral Composer-in-Residence with The Royal Opera – a degree launched with the Guildhall School of Music & Drama – to create this first operatic treatment of any among Kane’s dramas. With its relative absence of formal or even syntactic continuity, 4.48 Psychosis would have seemed ideal for rendering in musical-dramatic terms.
Kane’s final play seems essentially a contemplation – during an early-morning ‘window’ of emotional clarity – of the urge to self-negation and whether this is alleviated or exacerbated by others. Yet there is never any hint of false emoting or self-pity, owing in large part to her scabrous humour and an ability to imbue even the most desperate acts of self-denial with a tensile objectivity as effects empathy rather than passive sympathy. For this reason, Kane’s writing has taken on a greater emotional range and nuance over the seventeen years since her death.
Conceptually Ted Huffman’s staging is almost archetypal in its starkness, not least as abetted by the antiseptic whiteness which characterises Hannah Clark’s sets – serving at any one time as medical office, meeting room or interior space – and enhanced by D. M. Wood’s unsparing while never garish lighting. Sarah Fahie’s direction of movement is similarly fluid, even when the process of departure and return can become numbingly predictable rather than unnervingly consistent. What is never in doubt is the unsparing visual focus against which this drama is played out.
Now in his mid-30s, Venables has essayed a number of striking ensemble works as recall the assaultive early chamber pieces by David Sawer and Mark-Anthony Turnage. Certainly there is jaggedness to the instrumental writing, especially in the brief interludes when sequences of numbers are systematically projected, but equally limpidity to vocal parts redolent of the madrigal tradition; not least when they combine in yearning strands of polyphony at the close for an apotheosis from whose enveloping eloquence one suspects Kane would have demurred.
Not that this is any fault of the six singers who, despite the grey uniformity of their attire, are subtly contrasted as to vocal timbre. First among equals is Gweneth-Ann Rand – not the main character but a focal-point with which the others variously engage or confront, though all are accorded a level of melodic poise. Placed above the stage is CHROMA, responding with alacrity to the conducting of Richard Baker – particularly in those episodes where antiphonal percussion intones (often syllabically) the question-and-answer routines projected onto the set.
Playing continuously for around ninety minutes, 4.48 Psychosis ultimately feels true to the letter but not necessarily the spirit of the play – not least because it involves a degree of emotional blackmail in terms of audience response such as Kane would never have countenanced. If this does not undermine the artistic validity of Venables’s opera, it risks generalising and possibly diluting the dramatic essence which continues to provoke and unsettle. When the figure as taken by Rand prepares for her final action, the aftermath is less one of defiance than of defeat.
- Further performances on May 26, 27 & 28 at 7.30 p.m.
- Royal Opera House www.roh.org.uk