Isabelle Huppert in 4.48 Psychose
(Photo © Richard Termine)
Isabelle Huppert in 4.48 Psychose
(Photo © Richard Termine)
It's no wonder that Isabelle Huppert flexes her legs at the end of Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychose and then walks to the wings of BAM's Harvey Theater with a detectable hobble. This great French actress has just completed one of the most extraordinary performances anyone has ever been required, or perversely has chosen, to give.

When designer Dominique Bruguiere's concentrated light first picked her out of the gloom an hour and 45 minutes earlier, Huppert was standing center stage in a short-sleeved blue jersey and narrow black leather trousers, with her feet planted only inches apart on the floor and her arms at her sides. Her long, intelligent, rectangular face with its high cheekbones was impassive, and her shoulder-length chestnut hair was pulled back.

After waiting at least a full minute and possibly longer before speaking, she started to intone an elegy about suicide without budging in the slightest. As the performance progressed, she occasionally extended her fingers and veered her head somewhat to the right or left. While she raised her voice to a shout once or twice, she never infused it with anything suggesting emotion, manifest or recalled. Throughout, she sounded like the uninflected instructor on a foreign-language record.

It seems clear that when Kane wrote her fifth and final play (or, more precisely, poem) Psychosis 4.48, which Michael Bugdahn translated into French for this production, she was contemplating her self-inflicted demise; she hanged herself with shoelaces, and her death couldn't have surprised anyone who'd read this work, for what she'd put down with compulsive thoroughness is as explicit and distilled a portrait of female depression as we have. In one stark sentence after another, the character she created explains comprehensively and with no discernible affect the hopelessness with which she views her life. Occasionally, an unidentified man (Gerard Watkins) behind a scrim -- likely representing both a frustrated psychotherapist and a jilted or jilting lover -- questions or attempts to placate her without success.

In displaying the breadth and depth of her despair, the woman mentions spiritual depletion and medical failure. One of the rare times when she interrupts her drone (if that's the right word for it) and shouts is in response to being told that her situation is not her fault. She bellows, "I KNOW!" Kane prints the line in capital letters, and director Claude Regy -- who has a history of aligning himself with adventurous theater pieces -- follows her lead scrupulously. The character declares, "I'm angry because I understand, not because I don't." It's a heartbreaking contention. And although Kane is not in the mood to be humorous, she does crack wise at least once. Asked if she has any plans, the woman replies, "Take an overdose, slash my wrists, then hang myself....It couldn't possibly be misconstrued as a cry for help." She's got that right.

Audiences will undoubtedly find themselves thinking about the similarity between Kane's anhedonia and Samuel Beckett's, though it should be remarked that Beckett followed his advice to go on against the odds, whereas Kane succumbed to her intimations that going on is pointless. Some will also hear echoes of T.S. Eliot's seminal poem The Waste Land -- but here, again, Eliot continued to draw breath and remained a significant literary figure into old age. Both men kept their seminal works shorter than Kane's; for example, Beckett's Not I, in which only a woman's mouth is seen, runs less than 30 minutes. Because Kane's outcry extends longer than necessary to make its hardly subtle point, the late dramatist leaves the impression that she didn't simply want to set forth the causes of her own suicide but wanted to batter others until she'd instilled in them a strong urge to join her.

It's important that those thinking about submitting themselves to this rewarding ordeal be aware that, although supertitles (by Mike Sens) are flashed on a thin strip high above Huppert's nearly immobile head, there are relatively few of them and they're usually flashed during the many pauses that the actors take. Often, they precede what is about to be said rather than appearing at the same time a speech is uttered. (In one of his notes on the production, Regy states that the titles are meant "to communicate the essential themes of the text.")

A couple of times during the recitation, various numbers are projected on the scrim. (Erwan Huon is credited with the production's video elements.) At first, Huppert articulates these numbers in seemingly random order. The highest number is 100, and when Huppert mentions numbers later, she subtracts seven and then multiples of seven from 100. Note that 4.48, the minute at which the speaker specifies that she expects to take her life, is divisible by seven. Is this coincidence? Only Kane knew for certain, and she kept the secret.