Ravenhill on Kane
Kane’s early death has created something of a myth around Kane as a contemporary “tortured artist” in the mold of Sylvia Plath or James Dean. Said Ravenhill:
When a friend commits suicide, you’re always going to feel angry with them. Any personal anger that I felt towards Sarah has long since gone, but I still feel a flash of anger that she could leave a fine body of work that can be appropriated as suicide art. Her work is far better than that.
Now there’s a chance to reappraise it, with revivals of Phaedra’s Love and Cleansed. They’re very different plays: Phaedra’s Love a blast of sardonic nihilism, Cleansed a wave of almost operatic romance in the middle of a harsh world. Kane told me she wrote Cleansed when she was in love. Neither play was written by a person who knew she would commit suicide. Myth, biography and gossip crowd around the work of any artist, clouding our view, but maybe no one more so at the moment than Sarah Kane. We don’t know her. We never knew her. Let’s look at her work.
New Yorkers have been served both well and badly in terms of Kane’s work in the past few years: we had two productions of her last “play,” 4.48 Psychosis in 2005, one at St. Ann’s Warehouse and another at BAM. This hallucinatory tone poem for voices is a fascinating work, but far from characteristic of Kane’s plays, which are precise, Swiftian howls of pain and derision at the human animal. Rumor has it that Kane’s estate is extraordinarily careful about the rights to her body of work. It’s probably right, but at the same time it keeps audiences outside of London from experiencing these plays in a theater, for which they’ve been written.
Allow me to call attention to Iain Fisher’s Web site on Sarah Kane and Aleks Sierz’s In-Yer-Face Theatre site, which both provide a great deal of additional information. I can also recommend “Love me or kill me”: Sarah Kane and the theatre of extremes by Graham Saunders.
Sarah Kane’s Complete Plays is available as a Methuen paperback.
“I do not feel a responsibility towards the audience or to other women. What I always do when I write is to think: how does the play affect myself? If you are very specific in what you try to achieve, and it affects yourself, then it may affect other people too. On the other hand, if you have a target group in mind, and you think, ‘I want to affect the eleven million people watching ITV on Sunday,’ then everything becomes bland. So for me I am quite happy to aim at the smallest audience possible, which is myself, because I am the only person who is definitely going to see this play anyway. That’s why I try to please myself.”
Quoted in Johan Thielemans, Rehearsing the Future
In a Leeds hotel room, a journalist is consummating a tryst with a woman twenty years his junior when an explosion tears the room apart, revealing that a violent coup has taken place in England. This is, in short, Sarah Kane’s first play Blasted, and it’s superficially cheap and sensationalistic: the violence is Jacobean in its intensity, the language deliberately spare.
But Kane is playing for high stakes; there’s nothing remotely prurient or blithe about either the explicit sexual activity or the grotesque physical cruelty depicted. Blasted is the first iteration of a theme that would recur in Kane’s work: the redemptive possibility of love among beings who are capable of great volitional cruelty. Ian and Cate, Blasted‘s doomed lovers, are cases in point: Ian is a grotesque opportunistic cad, Cate a passive masochist, and Ian becomes far more unpleasant through the first half of the play until a soldier bursts into the room and proceeds to destroy Ian’s spirit. Until then, we’ve been uneasily, ambivalently on Cate’s side, but it’s impossible to remain distant from Ian’s cruel fate:
IAN: Are you going to kill me?
SOLDIER: Always covering your own arse.
The Soldier grips Ian’s head in his hands.
He puts his mouth over one of Ian’s eyes, sucks it out, bites it off and eats it.
He does the same to the other eye.
The Soldier is reenacting a cruelty he’s seen performed before, capable of it because he’s aware of its possibility. The play concludes with the Soldier, a suicide, dead; Cate burying a baby she’s been protecting; and Ian waiting to die. Note this dialogue, the spare precision of which remains unsentimental but precise in its revelation of conflicting emotional states:
CATE (burying the baby): I don’t know her name.
IAN: Don’t matter. No one’s going to visit.
CATE: I was supposed to look after her.
IAN: Can bury me next to her soon. Dance on my grave.
CATE: Don’t feel no pain or know nothing you shouldn’t know–
IAN: What you doing?
CATE: Praying. Just in case.
IAN: Will you pray for me?
IAN: When I’m dead, not now.
CATE: No point when you’re dead.
IAN: You’re praying for her.
CATE: She’s baby.
IAN: Can’t you forgive me?
CATE: Don’t see bad things or go bad places –
IAN: She’s dead, Cate.
CATE: Or meet anyone who’ll do bad things.
IAN: She won’t, Cate, she’s dead.
The Beckettian tone here in the literally “blasted” landscape of the play verges on the sentimental (a sentimentality countered a few minutes later when Ian, starving, tries to eat the corpse of the baby), but Blasted never seems to strive to shock; its attitude towards the violence it depicts is too laconic, the violence itself too figurative. On the stage, violence and cruelty of this excessive nature can’t possibly be staged literally; the knowledge that we’re in a theater, watching actors, renders it instantly figurative, thereby imbuing it with something other than representational, naturalistic significance: an objective correlative for the motiveless cruelty that Cate and Ian enact in their early, predatory romantic relationship in the first part of the play.
Blasted (Review of 2008 Soho Rep Production)
Blasted by Sarah Kane. Directed by Sarah Benson. Set design by Louisa Thompson. Lighting design by Tyler Micoleau. Sound design by Matt Tierney. Costume design by Theresa Squire. Technical director: Billy Burns. With Reed Birney (Ian), Marin Ireland (Cate) and Louis Cancelmi (Soldier). Running time: 1 hour, 40 minutes; no intermission. A production of Soho Rep. Reviewed at the 3 October 2008 performance.
A near-flawless production of Sarah Kane’s first play demonstrates Blasted‘s strengths and weaknesses
Sarah Kane’s 1995 Blasted, making its New York premiere in Sarah Benson’s rigorous, imaginative production at Soho Rep through 28 October, changed the face of English theatre for a generation – by and large, by recapturing the violent, moralistic stage world and practice of the 17th-century Jacobean stage for what Kane and her contemporaries perceived as a despairing late-20th-century landscape. Along with plays like Anthony Neilson’s Penetrator and Mark Ravenhill’s Shopping and Fucking, it ushered in what Aleks Sierz called a period of “in-yer-face theatre,” a deliberately provocative, violent, and vernacular dramaturgical style. In contrast to Edward Bond and Howard Barker, their most direct antecedents, these writers eschewed the formal and structural lyricism of their forerunners’ language to bathe instead in the fragmented obscenities and stuttering inarticulacies of the marginalised outsider: a bow to naturalism and realism that both Barker and Bond long ago abandoned.
No play that followed Blasted‘s 1995 premiere reached the same status as an exemplar of “in-yer-face” stage image and theatrical style, with the possible exception of Cleansed; Kane herself would begin to abandon stage literalism shortly, her final two plays, Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, sheerly dramatic rather than theatrical texts, lacking all stage direction or design specificity, as potent on page as on stage. As she honed her vision, her characters became more and more articulate, and as her language became richer her stage practice became more spare. She remained sui generis through the rest of her career after the premiere of Blasted, a play whose strengths largely rested on its theatrical realisation rather than its literary qualities. (A short precis of the plot can be found here.)
And Blasted gets that realisation here. Benson’s set blasts open too with the violent explosion that blows apart the hotel room at the end of Scene Two, revealing the interior structure of the theatre at 46 Walker Street; the self-consciousness of Benson’s vision of Kane’s text renders the light and sound rigging visible, even to a new ladder leaning against the right wall of the theatre space far upstage. The visual movement of her production is that of descent, in a reverse Dantesque progression from “heaven” (the hotel room, whose platformed, proscenium presentation calls attention to itself with footlights and pale white illumination), to “purgatory” (the theatre’s own physical structure), to a sort of “hell” (when Cate buries the dead child of Scene Five, she does so by tearing wooden planks up from the theatre floor to create a dirtless grave; not in the least inappropriate, since the space beneath the Elizabethan/Jacobean stage platform, reachable via a trap door in the platform’s floor, was colloquially known as “hell”). In correspondence with me, John Branch noted the effectiveness of Louisa Thompson’s set design and Tyler Micoleau’s lights:
[Thompson] … also designed [sic] and Molly’s Dream at Soho Rep, both of which I saw. [Blasted's set] begins as a neat, well lighted hotel room; midway through, after a scene change accomplished in total darkness accompanied by tumultuous sound, the ceiling is gone and part of the floor, one of the wall pieces is hanging askew, and furnishings are scattered about. This renders the play’s progression as a kind of peeling away, a probing into the structure of things; the first impression is of order and light, but war and pain (which the play links to love) tear this away, and when we see behind and below this facade, we find shadows, recesses, everything askew. Chaos, we might think, has come again. By the end, the script and the staging and the set combine to suggest both that a descent toward hell has begun and that a modern-day Oedipus has been blinded by his approach to truth.
If I haven’t yet mentioned the performances, it’s because they are all on the same brilliant level of achievement as the set: Reed Birney is a tired, cruel, cancer-ridden middle-aged Ian, crippled by his own self-delusions; Marin Ireland a slightly retarded Cate torn between her own desires, compassion and self-loathing, hanging on to a slim margin of hope; and Louis Cancelmi a soldier driven mad through the witness of others’ cruelty and the progression of his own through wartime. Director and actors are also unsparing in the depiction of Kane’s own cruel world: none of the myriad violent bodily transgressions of the play are minimised, and the determined physicality of the achievement is shudderingly powerful.
A production this extraordinary, however, unearths weaknesses as well as strengths in Kane’s text, weaknesses that may not be evident on a mere reading of the play. The idea that the conscious agency of cruelty gives rise to more cruelty in an unending spiral of suffering has been with us since the Oresteia and, in the more modern era, Shakespeare’s own Titus Andronicus and other revenge tragedies. While Kane’s so-called “brutalism” may be the most recent (as well as necessary and urgent) theatrical articulation of this truism, it remains a truism, and the younger Kane seems to have come to a dead end with it about two-thirds into Blasted.
The conclusion of the play presents certain perhaps inevitable ambiguities, but these ambiguities seem to confuse rather than provide a deeper insight into the condition of the play’s world. Of all the directorial challenges that Kane’s plays present (especially the notorious “The rats carry Carl’s feet away” stage direction of Cleansed), perhaps none is more difficult to render than the four-word “[Ian] dies with relief” on page 60 of Kane’s Collected Plays. In Benson’s production, as in the text, this is immediately followed by the beginning of a light rain “coming through the roof” (of the play’s set or, imaginatively, the theatre’s own roof), and the re-entry of Cate.
As readers, we know beyond any possible doubt that Ian has died. Is this so, however, in the theatre, without the text before us? The challenge for the director is to render Ian’s death as certain in the watching as it is in the reading. I begin to fear, however, that it is an insuperable challenge; the problem is that, in the theatrical experience of the play, it may be far from certain, and there is the risk that, if this death is not explicit, the play itself as a theatrical event becomes structurally deficient.
Benson chooses to dress Cate in a white shift for her re-entry (Kane’s text does not mention a costume change), and this poses a worthy if possibly unsuccessful attempt to gloss over this ambiguity in Kane’s text, for a “dying with relief,” in a stage this littered with bodies, blood and garbage, is a difficult achievement for any performer. Cate’s re-entrance would then signal a transcendence to another realm of existence. Ian’s death on stage cannot be assumed to have been transmitted to the audience, however; it is by no means explicit here, and it may be impossible to render with the necessary explicitness as the text stands; and if this transmission fails, the play is left with a void at the center of its vision. If Ian is assumed dead, his irritable “Shit” at the onset of the rain is a signal of his disappointment that there is an afterlife, after all. If, however, he may still be alive, his “Shit” at the onset of the rain becomes a joke, a theatrical representation of the classic complaint, “It could be worse – it could be raining.” And a very good joke it would be, too, and in no way alien to the very real humor that Blasted certainly exhibits in other scenes. In addition (and worse for the play), both are theatrically effective. But it does raise the issue of whether or not Cate’s compassion and Ian’s gratitude in the final moments of the play are valid in this world, or only possible in the next. For a play as inspired by the global politics of the day as Blasted, whatever its deeper metaphysical significance, this is an urgent question, and unfortunately Kane muffs it. There is a very thin line between ambiguity and confusion; however, I suspect that this insoluble problem is in Kane’s text, rather than the production here.
The question remains at the center of Kane’s work through Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, but it was only with the growing need to expand the language of her plays at the expense of stage violence that she was able to achieve the expression of the pain and ecstasy at the root of her dramatic impulse. The language of Blasted is not that much of an extension from that of Edward Bond’s Saved, notorious for its scene of a baby being stoned to death in a London park, a play which Kane cited as a profound influence on her own decision to become a dramatist. But that language could not entirely contain, at this point in her work, the ambivalence of the vision, which grew sharper as the last plays became more poetic. The prosaic vernacular could only reach so far.
That said, you have to begin somewhere. Kane began with Blasted, one of the most powerful and influential first plays in generations (perhaps only Beckett’s Waiting for Godot and John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger can be compared to its significance for the English-language theatre of the second half of the 20th century). That it has taken this long to get to New York is in some way criminal; the crime is redeemed by the first-class achievement and power of Soho Rep’s production, as necessary and urgent as the play itself.
The risks of the ideologically-constructed self, as well as the risks of transgressive vulnerability, tenderness and love, are at the center of Sarah Kane’s only film for television, Skin, written in 1995 just after her first major stage play Blasted. The 11-minute film is more of an anecdote than a story; nonetheless, it retains considerable power as an incision into the bowels of hate and the attractive desire towards the abject as defined by Julia Kristeva:
A comparison of the final film with the screenplay as published in the Complete Plays is instructive. The most interesting difference is the cutting of an unnecessary and mute commentary by the old black man who appears in the middle of and at the end of the film: his compassion is less forced in the film, and a particularly unnecessary sentimentalism is excised; the compassion here is gentler. (I also note the mordant commentary on “communication,” here rendered as a satire on the cellphone and answering machine, a few years before cellphones became ubiquitous; that the skinheads use them to coordinate a violent racist brawl is a dark commentary on the technology.)
Though produced in 1995, it received its television debut only in 1997 on the BBC’s Channel 4. Due to the depiction of violence and racism in Skin, the Daily Mail called it “one of the most violent and racially offensive programmes ever to be made for television in this country.” Despite this, director Vincent O’Connell was nominated for a Golden Bear award for the film at the 1996 Berlin International Film Festival.
Phaedra’s Love (1996)
Self-satisfaction is a contradiction in terms. — Phaedra’s Love
Such romantic relationships are at the center of Kane’s second play, Phaedra’s Love, a revision of the Greek myth that posits Phaedra as, again, a masochist and Hippolytus as a poxed-up but sexually attractive layabout. Kane’s technique is just beginning to broaden here — the scenes between Phaedra and her daughter Strophe are tense with warning and recrimination, and Kane is less likely to end scenes with, say, arbitrary eye-munchings. But the ending, which finds the stage bathed with the blood of all four main characters (in itself quite Jacobean), doesn’t quite come off: not the violence but its excess seems stuck on.
Phaedra’s Love also demonstrates one of the faults of Kane’s plays: as noted, its characterizations seem less than three-dimensional. In neither Cate nor Phaedra’s case, we don’t get the visceral grasp of the character that we do in the depiction of Ian. And despite the laconicism of the presentation of violence, the plays don’t yet demonstrate a confidence in the poeticism of their dialogue (though such confidence would be well-founded). When one can trace the playwright’s urge to shock under the play, the playwright hasn’t been covering her tracks well enough.
Even so, contrast Kane’s use of violence as a playwright with the attitude towards violence expressed, instead, by directors like Quentin Tarantino. Kane’s utilization of violence is earned because it is an expression of emotional devastation: unlike the case of Kill Bill, the violence of Blasted is more effective because it is deeply, unequivocally earned: love is at stake, and for Kane love is everything; in Tarantino films and in Titus Andronicus, nothing is at stake except a desire for vengeance, and there are limits to the poeticism of vengeance. Titus Andronicus is one of Shakespeare’s less successful plays because its violence is not equal to its content.
Sarah Kane’s 1998 play Cleansed was one of the most ambitious of her career. Set in what Kane quite explicitly set out as “a university,” Cleansed follows the attempts of a high rationalist, Tinker, as he sets out to research, test and document the extremes of love: familial love, sexual love, desire and compassion. Eventually, Tinker strips love to its reductive physical basis, leaving its characters broken but nonetheless capable of hope.
Cleansed is, perhaps, Kane’s most optimistic play: it ends with “It stops raining. The sun comes out,” and one of the (dead) characters smiling beatifically on the beaten survivors. (It’s also interesting to note here that the sound of rain underscored most of the action in Kane’s earlier Blasted.) More to the point, the scenes of cruelty (of which there are many, including a drug addict being injected through the eyeball) are tempered by several scenes of remarkable gentleness between the three pairs of lovers in the play.
In the world Kane depicts, it’s love that’s transgressive, not violence; violence and rationalistic cruelty are the norm. There are several nude scenes in the play that begin and end with the lovers contemplating each other’s bodies, these scenes central to the play and new in Kane’s dramaturgical method. They constitute a theatrical version of Georges Bataille’s discussion of nakedness in his book Erotism:
Stripping naked is the decisive action. Nakedness offers a contrast to self-possession, to discontinuous existence, in other words. It is a state of communication revealing a quest for a possible continuance of being beyond the confines of the self. Bodies open out to a state of continuity through secret channels that give us a feeling of obscenity. [Emphasis mine.]
In the play, physicality is almost always a site of violence and disfigurement; only those who have transcended this physicality in an act of compassion or forgiveness are vouchsafed the possibility of love; even the cruel rationalist Tinker, stage-managing his scientific study of desire, discovers this by the end of Cleansed.
“If we can experience something through art, then we might be able to change our future, because experience engraves lessons on our hearts through suffering, whereas speculation leaves us untouched. … It’s crucial to chronicle and commit to memory events never experienced — in order to avoid them happening. I’d rather risk overdose in the theatre than in life.”
Cited in Langridge and Stephenson, Rage and Reason
Crave by Sarah Kane. Directed by Cheryl Faraone. Sound design by Ben Schiffer. Lighting design by Laura J. Eckelman. Scenic design by Mark Evancho. Costume design by Franny Bohar. With Adam Ludwig (A), Stephanie Janssen (M), Rishabh Kashyap (B) and Stephanie Strohm (C). Running time: 45 minutes. Performed on a double-bill with Neal Bell’s Somewhere in the Pacific. A presentation of the Potomac Theatre Project. Reviewed at the 6 July 2008 performance. At The Atlantic Stage 2, 330 West 16th Street, New York, 1-26 July 2008. Ticket and schedule information at Ticket Central.
A quartet of voices explores the craving for love unto death in Sarah Kane’s play.
Crave (1998) marked a substantial formal departure from Sarah Kane’s first three physically frenetic and explicit plays. She writes here for four seated performers who do not move from their chairs for the duration of the work; in this, she draws entire attention to the language of two couples, an older woman (M) and a younger man (B) in an illicit relationship, and an older man (A) and young girl (C) engaged in an abusive tryst that threatens to destroy both of them. But the ease of identity is not that simple as the play progresses; not only the roles of abuser/abused and exploiter/exploited (and each has their own definitions of abuse and exploitation), but family roles as well (are the older man and older woman also related in some way?) are under constant redefinition; the pedophile is granted the most eloquent paean to love in the entire play. Morality and judgment, then, slip out from under the lyrical dialogue in Kane’s effort to present, on the stage, the impossible cravings and desires that emerge from love.
Ninian Smart, in her article about Buddhism for Macmillan’s Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, sums up four doctrines of Buddhist philosophy. “They affirm that (1) life is permeated by suffering or dissatisfaction (dukkha); (2) the origin of suffering lies in craving or grasping (tanha); (3) the cessation of suffering is possible, through the cessation of craving …” These Buddhist ideas seem central to Crave, which refers throughout to a variety of other texts (among them Eliot’s The Waste Land and Beckett’s Waiting for Godot) as well as both local and apparently (though not necessarily, this being unknowable) autobiographical references; the language and references permeate and render timeless and complex the everyday gestures of both love and abhorrence that the characters verbalise. For her characters, however, the fourth tenet of Buddhism – that “the way to [the cessation of craving] is the Noble Eightfold Path,” as Smart has it – remains a dogma beyond their reach. In the end, the craving for love is revealed as a craving for death and oneness, a spectacular realisation that transcends emotion and simple good/bad, optimism/pessimism dichotomies without a vision of an afterlife; instead, in an ecstatic final vision, their individual lives beyond the world become pure undifferentiated light and energy; until then, they are trapped in their individuated, special, personal darkness.
The act of craving speaks through each character individually, an act which is mirrored in Cheryl Faraone’s insightful and solid production (a difficult thing in an ambivalent play of shifting surfaces such as this) by the simple set design by Mark Evancho. Though there are four chairs, each is quite different from the other, individuated instances which refer back to some Ideal “chair,” as the characters’ unique cravings each refer back to a primal undifferentiated craving.
The four performers bring an appropriate sensual passion to the language, though I sensed something vaguely lacking. Because Crave is a language piece for four voices, these voices are ideally differentiated as the different timbres of the instruments common to a string quartet. Not to question the age-specificity of the performers here, who all seem to be around the same age and become deeply enrapt in the play’s obsessions as the play progresses, but the range of the play’s linguistic and musical tonality suffered from the lack of a deeper, more weathered voice – the viola or cello, if you will, of the quartet. Adam Ludwig, as the older man and the abuser of a schoolgirl (perhaps his daughter), is affecting in his role and delivers the central monologue of the evening with a tightly controlled passion and anxiety. But as written (and as played in other productions of Crave), the role is for an older, more weathered voice, a timbre which would have contrasted with the higher registers of the voices of the women and the younger man, rendering to the play a wider tonal spectrum. Another minor problem with the production is in its costume design; in dressing the younger woman in a schoolgirl’s jumper, the production stacks the deck against a properly ambivalent reading of the play; instead, we’re drawn into a vaguely conventional consideration of abuser/abused and guilt/innocence which the play works hard to mitigate against. It’s not pity that Kane is after, at least not exclusively; it’s the recognition that the nature of craving is, beyond individuation, the same for all four.
My reservation about vocal tonality aside, the four performers here – Ludwig, Rishabh Kashyap as the younger man, Stephanie Strohm as the schoolgirl, and especially Stephanie Janssen, who brings a brittle hardness to her role as the older woman – are fully vested in Kane’s language and absorbing in their presence; in effectively restricting their movements in a tight space through this passionate 45-minute play, they demonstrate a resilient discipline that breathes precise life into the production. The lighting design by Laura J. Eckelman is effective and expressive though unobtrusive; the canned music which opens and punctuates the play edges towards the border of being obtrusive but never (thankfully) entirely gets there.
The Potomac Theatre Project offers here a fine production of one of Kane’s most mature, elusive and complex plays. I only wish that the program wasn’t burdened by the anonymous dramaturg’s note for Crave – the note doesn’t detract from the power of this production or the play itself, nor do I mean any slight against the dramaturg who wrote it, but because I feel strongly opposed to the sentiments it expresses I must argue with it. The note begins with the phrase “Art is autobiography” (is it really? And if it is, in what sense? Is that the whole or even the most significant dimension of it?) and unfortunately ends with the observation that “Kane hung herself with a shoelace some months after writing the play, a necessary part to the completion of it,” an irresponsible statement that flies straight in the face of Mark Ravenhill’s 2005 essay in the Guardian, commenting on his friendship with Kane:
When a friend commits suicide, you’re always going to feel angry with them. Any personal anger that I felt towards Sarah has long since gone, but I still feel a flash of anger that she could leave a fine body of work that can be appropriated as suicide art. Her work is far better than that. … Myth, biography and gossip crowd around the work of any artist, clouding our view, but maybe no one more so at the moment than Sarah Kane. We don’t know her. We never knew her. Let’s look at her work.
A play is not an obituary. Crave is not about the sufferings of Sarah Kane through her experience of craving; as this production ironically suggests, it is about the sufferings of each individual audience member as they experience the cravings of passion and love as well. To characterise it as an extended aestheticised suicide note is not only inaccurate, but in bad taste, denigrating the status of Kane’s plays as a poetry that has the potential to speak personally to every individual; the biographical context is utterly irrelevant. It also makes the assumption that any person’s final catastrophic act is ultimately knowable and explicable. It isn’t. She and her plays deserve more.
4.48 psychose (1999/2000)
John Branch has generously allowed me to post his thoughts on the Claude R?gy production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychose, performed by Isabelle Huppert (in French), which ran at BAM’s Next Wave Festival in 2005. Said John:
Claude R?gy is the director of 4.48 Psychose, the French-language version of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis that’s currently running at BAM. Merely to name him is to touch on the formal essence of this play; if I’m not mistaken, the French word for director is “regie,” and so he immediately reminds us of the role of words in the theater. (Of course there are words in the theater? Not always. Nor when they’re present are they always the only thing.) The issue is everywhere: the matter of correct labels (4.48 Psychose, he writes in a program note, is “not a play, no characters, no storyline, no action”); the remarks I heard after last night’s performance, most of which turned on the language we’d heard; the show itself, which consists not of the “two planks and a passion” of a traditional definition of theater but of two actors and a text, the actors almost immobile, the text flowing out to us like music; a moment in that text, which tells us “Just one word on a page and there is theater”; and even in a discussion that R?gy will lead next week, which is titled “On Sarah Kane: In Search of a Theatricality Inherent to Language.”
To begin by talking about the formal essence of the play is to ignore the question of what it’s about, and I think if I were reviewing it (at times like this I wish that were still my job) I’d begin instead by saying that the script reads somewhat like a suicide note and that the obvious approach, which other productions I know of have avoided, is to take it as one. This is what R?gy has done with Isabelle Huppert (who stands on the forestage and barely moves as she delivers this testament) and G?rard Watkins (who appears now and then behind a scrim to deliver lines as the doctor and/or lover one hears in the script). No one who knows Huppert’s work will be surprised that her performance is one of the remarkable things about seeing this show. She has a quality of daring that I’ve seen in only one other performer I can think of, the New York-based actress Elizabeth Marvel (who sadly is currently working in TV), and I left BAM nearly shocked by what Huppert did on the stage. But I’ll have to leave it to others to describe this.
Since my day job awaits me, I have time only to mention the other surprise of this production: the connection I saw with the French neoclassical theater of Racine and Corneille. In The Death of Tragedy, George Steiner wrote: “All that happens, happens inside language. That is the special narrowness and grandeur of the French classic manner. … As nothing of the content of Ph?dre is exterior to the expressive form, to the language, the words come very near the condition of music, where content and form are identical.” It’s an austere and terrible music one can hear at BAM this week and the next, but music nonetheless.