Sarah Kane's drama comes to New York in a Polish production by TR Warszawa.
When Robin Williams took his own life earlier this year, we collectively wondered how such a brilliant mind could be driven to a pit of deep despair. Depression is a serious illness, one that creeps up when you least expect it. It doesn't care who you are or how successful you are. It just wants to eat you alive.
Some insight into this disease is granted in Sarah Kane's 4:48 Psychosis, a gut-punching exploration of clinical depression first produced in 2000, a year after its young author committed suicide. The jagged-edged drama takes its title from the darkest point of the day, 4:48am, when Kane would often find herself awakened from her slumber. With no stage directions or delineated characters, her text is open for interpretation. In the hands of director Grzegorz Jarzyna and Poland's TR Warszawa at St. Ann's Warehouse 4:48 Psychosis is a traumatic, almost unwatchable experience.
Jarzyna rearranges the original script and finds a mostly coherent throughline, at the center of which is an unnamed blonde protagonist (Magdalena Cielecka) who could stand in for Kane herself (the play is believed to be semiautobiographical). "I am sad," she says, peering out from the darkness. "I feel that the future is hopeless and things cannot improve." Can't eat. Can't sleep. Can't make love to her significant other (Katarzyna Herman). What doctors prescribe just numbs the senses. There's only one way out.
If you've suffered from depression or know someone who has, the feelings this erstwhile heroine expresses are all too recognizable. Jarzyna's design team completes the motif. Background music by Piotr Domiński and Paweł Mykietyn comes in the form of a heart beating out of its chest. Scenic artist Małgorzata Szczęśniak places the action in a claustrophobic green hospital ward, with a wall literally closing in on the actors. Felice Ross provides shards of light resembling broken glass.
Cielecka delivers a mesmerizing performance that at times is too excrutiating to watch. She's a raw, exposed nerve being twisted to see what it feels like. Jarzyna's arrangement goes from painful moment to painful moment. She overdoses as a singer croons "When I Fall in Love" slower and slower as the pills have their impact. A wrist-cutting leaves her arms stained with red bandages. In a genuinely frightening moment, Cielecka, bare-chested and in her underwear, runs into a concrete wall over and over, exploding with blood upon every impact.
Smeared with her own insides, she begs the audience "See Me." "Watch me vanish." She disappears into the darkness, never to return. Perhaps that's the scariest part: the quiet articulation of a feeling nobody wants to experience but far too many actually do.