REVIEW: 4.48 Psychosis

Dani Cugini is still recovering from this brilliant production

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“Hatch opens. Stark light.”

4.48 Psychosis is a beautiful, traumatic little knife wound of a play.

If you caught sight of the page-long list of warnings outside Queens College’s Fitzpatrick Theatre before the show, you might see my point: it includes depression, anxiety, suicide, self-harming, holocaust references, child abuse, extreme profanity, medical violence… I’m pretty sure that must break some records.

This is not family entertainment. But it is still beautiful. The depressed mind brought out and dissected in 4.48 Psychosis is not one that simply wishes to die: it is acutely aware of the absolute beauty of life, and this fuels part of its incredible anger. This is a play that will make you lie down and stare at the ceiling when you get home, without being one of those high-brow philosophical plays that tells you it wants you to lie down and stare at the ceiling when you get home.

Quite simply, it tells the truth, or at least a version of it. And the truth eats at you.

The set is a stage draped in swathes of white linen lit up by bright white light. There are two chairs held up by rope; at the start, one breaks. This design is minimalistic but feels saturated with tension, with little disconcerting touches such as snippets of slow, mechanically happy music, the darkening of the stage between each scene transition (very smoothly done) and an ongoing low-pitched hum (I admittedly don’t know if this was intentional or merely the equipment, but it contributed to the strung-out tension of the play).

Onto the performers. 4.48 Psychosis has three actresses, who each play a ‘different person’ with depression (or they might be thought of as slightly different personas of one person with depression). Their performances are exquisite, both separately and when they interact (particularly the most powerful and disturbing scene); there is a beautifully directed mechanistic choreography between them in certain scenes, which was very effective though a little off-kilter on occasion.

The three performers meld together but there are subtle aspects that distinguish each performance. Rute Costa is characterised by pain: a mute, all-encompassing pain that clenches her fists and twists her expressions. Isla Cowan is desperate, her tapping fingers and barely shaking voice taut with anxiety. And Ruby Kwong is burning, burning with a furious, cynical intensity. Isla and Rute give accomplished and nuanced performances in what is a very difficult play to pull off, but I have to highlight Ruby in particular: her performance was some of the best acting I’ve seen so far in Cambridge. I don’t think I breathed during one or two of her monologues.

There’s not much to fault in this production – a few minor issues with tech, a few choreographed scenes where the actresses fell a little out of sync. The play itself is difficult: a reviewer of the original production asked ‘How do you award aesthetic points to a 75-minute suicide note?’ There’s no easy way to answer that, but you don’t come out of 4.48 Psychosis with a feeling that life is meaningless, more of how powerful depression is that it can make it so difficult to grapple with that meaning. Depression is one of the most relevant topics today, and also one of the least understood. Kane’s work goes a small way towards changing that.

See this play. It will make you uncomfortable. In a good way.