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[Theater Review]: 4:48 Psychosis

Can Shanghai pull off one of the most challenging plays of recent times?
Last updated: 2015-11-09
Photos by Yin Xuefeng

"RSVP ASAP! RSVP ASAP!" shouts a disheveled 20-something in an empty bathtub, strumming a guitar frantically. This sounds like a scenario from a promotional video advertising a weekend party on the Bund, but in this case it’s the embodiment of one’s inner depression and anguish as expressed in 4:48 Psychosis.

In the seminal work by controversial UK playwright Sarah Kane, we follow a woman’s struggle with mental health issues and her internal debate over the ethics of suicide. The play does not ask if suicide is good or bad, but rather explores the victim’s rationalization of the act. It is a partially autobiographical account of Kane’s own battle with depression and, this being her final play, can be viewed as a suicide note of sorts before she took her own life.

This new production staged by director Dmitry Troyanovsky at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center (now in their 20th year) raises the stakes exceptionally high. It’s an understatement to say that doing a play by Sarah Kane can be challenging, especially when her works include moments of people getting their eyeballs ripped out by Yugoslavian militants and babies being eaten (check out Blasted, hell of a play).

But instead of giving us extreme examples of someone’s battle with suicide, the cast and crew manage to meld chaotic moments of emotional distress with a sense of remembering that it is just a play (something Kane was famous for doing). One way they achieve this is through the use of live musicians on stage, which provides a soundtrack to the action and adds ambiance that helps build the tension even more, keeping the audience engaged and grounded.

Troyanovsky’s interpretation of the play makes us believe that we’re viewing the drama not in real time, but as a series of flashbacks in this woman’s mind in her patience to reach 4:48am, the time when Kane woke up every night in her depressive state. One way they illustrated this was by having each cast member at work doing something at all times, even when they weren’t speaking. They made great use of the space, and acted as if they were in their own world, creating their own story, like a post-millennial Greek Chorus.

With that in mind, the real credit in this production goes to the cast. In a play written with no stage directions, settings, or actual characters, one could be forgiven for not knowing how to approach the piece. But the cast of four rose to the occasion and managed to use the words as a character study as opposed to just a line reading.

Particular praise should be given to Manman Xu as the lead role of the nameless victim. I’ve seen many thespians whose idea of slipping into madness is doing a hackneyed impression of Ophelia from Hamlet for an hour until they get their cue to exit the stage. Xu seems to have found a way to show us these short but appropriately timed spurts of emotions through the calm sheen of being overprescribed. Not a constant, hysterical cry for help or someone so drugged out they can’t speak, but a happy medium that kept the audience engaged.

An aspect of this production that could be explored deeper is finding a sense of what the play is asking of us. Obviously there are themes of depression, suicide, and a general discontent for modern life, but where does this lead us? This is not just a pitfall with this show, but many modern performances in a similar vein. We can go on and on about how today’s world is making us depressed, but what does it actually mean? There is no single answer to this, but the question deserves closer examination.

Overall, though, this was an excellent show that I’d highly recommend to anyone interested in contemporary or experimental theater. Not all plays in China have to be opera or Shakespeare -- something Kane called In-Yer-Face theater can work here too.


4:48 Psychosis runs until August 9 at the Shanghai Dramatic Arts Center; 288 Anfu Lu, near Wukang Lu. Tickets are available on SmartTicket

About the Author: August Cohlmia grew up directing theater and now works for Split-Works / Scorched as a booking agent for Asia. He also does our weekly comics in the SmSh newsletter.