Imprisoned behind glass, they stare forward. A mind-numbing whirring. A sudden eruption of sound, a flash of light, and they seem to glitch, extending their arms for help, strangling themselves. They sway.
Deafinitely Theatre opens its current production, an adaptation of Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis, with a horrifying and resolute visual, complete with stroboscopic lighting, piercing sound effects and repulsive physicality.
The house feels suffocative. This atmosphere is achieved by two things: the stage is obstructed from the audience by a structure of three clear panels; and from within this box, a mist emerges and makes the air thick and visible. The set design (realised by Paul Burgess) for this performance was very good, indeed. Not only did it achieve this suffocative effect, causing an unsettling distance between the performer and the spectator, but it also tapped into a theme of voyeurism which subtly haunts the dramatic text. We look through the glass at the patients as though they are subjects of experimentation or animals at a macabre zoo. This obstruction implies that the patients are contagious, almost, but also hems in the action, alluding to that drilling sensation of being "in one's own head".
A fully-observable world is created by this box-like set. Our imagination is restricted to this area only. We are aware of the space beyond, as made possible by the doors on each side of the stage, leading to the wings, and the circular gutter on the floor Centerstage. This unchanging and contained set makes the feeling of entrapment and stasis ineluctable.
At points, it also causes a sense of frustration amongst certain audience members, as the text which appears on the Upstage wall is obscured slightly by the structures holding the clear panels in place. This brings me on to my next point of focus: intertextuality. This performance was incredibly rich in this area, merging lines from the original playtext, spoken word, projections, harsh lighting, and music and sound with physical theatre and a grotesque style of mime — all, of course, alongside a cleverly integrated use of sign language. These blended marvellously together, truly emblematic of how different theatrical components can combine to create an awe-inspiring performance.
I think it was a wise and poignant decision to keep the format of the playtext when projecting it upon the back wall. Sarah Kane's writing is known, obviously, for its emulative and provocative use of the space of the page; I think it was a good idea to keep this and not to simply have the lines in flavourless prose.
I cannot sign myself and hence cannot say conclusively, but it did seem to me that the integration of sign language in this performance was seamless and effective. As I said before, the performers used a particularly grotesque style of mime: ripping into their skin and pulling out their organs, extracting their teeth, and hanging themselves — all images evoked by a wonderful and efficacious physicality (directed by Alim Jayda). For me, it was an intricate blend of sign language and evocative physical movement, proving positively difficult to distinguish. Both Adam Bassett and Brian Duffy (playing the patients), by whom such movement was principally performed, had an indefatigable and tortured energy, eliciting a response from an audience member that to perform it must have been "physically draining". I will note that Duffy's physicality came across as somewhat more vicious — and positively so — but both performers were equally riveting to watch.
The style of signing definitely added a layer of character to the performance: the violent, erratic signing of Bassett and Dufy, particularly towards the end of the performance where they both explain their divine visions to one another; and the patronising, slow signing of Matt Kyle and Jim Fish (playing the doctors). I thought it was an interesting decision to have the doctors speaking and signing whilst the patients only signed. Perhaps this was to accommodate the hearing amongst the audience members, but I could not help but feel that there was a deeper meaning to this, that perhaps it added a relatability for the anguish of the patients. For example, there was a moment where Kyle and Fish enter as two other medical professionals, Fish an assessing doctor and Kyle an interpreter for Duffy's character. This need for interpretation added an extra layer of distance between the patients and the medical institution. Combined with the doctor's blasé and arrogant persona, I felt that this pulled inspiration from the daily struggles that deaf people might have in feeling distanced from the hearing community to signify this patient-doctor relationship further by making such a struggle identifiable and relatable. This was made more significant by the performers' costumes being plain and relative to quotidian clothing.
Costume was not particularly spectacular, though this did not take away from the performance at all. It was used, instead, as a quick signifier of patient and doctor through a white coat and this aforementioned everyday clothing. Though, the use of everyday clothing (i.e. jogging bottoms, t-shirt) was an interesting choice: bringing the hostility of mental illness back into a natural context, in line with the wills of the original text.
As for the technical aspects, the lighting (designed by Joe Hornsby) was very effective and dynamic. The use of a stroboscope alongside jarring and staggered music created an atmosphere of suffering and torture well. The projections were effective, particularly in the cockroach scenes, wherein the stage became a world visibly swamped by pain and discomfort, and in what I will call the Bingo and Lecture scenes, which I shall elaborate on later. As I said before, text was used effectively, blending captioning and the structure of the dramatic text. Sound (designed by Chris Bartholomew) was used effectively, particularly in scenes like the overture, to add a fragmented anti-rhythm to the action.
Early on in reading Sarah Kane's 4.48 Psychosis and later on in the text as well, one comes across a provocative page of scattered numbers, a page most theatremakers struggle to know what to do with. In this particular production, the performers simply stated (and/or signed) the numbers listed. This was then followed by a red light and a short buzzing sound. At first, I felt that this was too literal and uncreative a way to read these numbers; to just reel them off seemed unimaginative to me. However, this scene then became a rather absurd spectacle as it went on. The lights turned green for certain numbers, instead of red. And the short buzz became a commending bell. It became relative to a game of Bingo, almost, the patients and doctors hoping to get the correct number.
I thought that this was a simple yet clever way of emulating that experimental and taxing guinea-pig relationship between doctor and patient as they both aim for the same result, the patient being praised when they behave in the correct, modified way. This was made more apparent by the bells sounding when the doctors and patients chose their numbers together whereas the short buzz sounded when they made decisions alone.
The other scene of poignancy that I mentioned was what I am calling the Lecture scene, wherein the doctors, lasers in hands, present a long-winded array of tablets, their compositions, side effects and effects upon the patients. This, if perhaps a little literal, was an efficacious and animalistic scene, really emphasising the objectification of the patients as they shied away from the intrusive green light of the laser tracing their bodies to exemplify the onscreen diagrams.
I did find it interesting as well that the word 'she' had been changed to 'him'. This added an interesting relational dynamic between the two patients. Why 'him' and not 'them'? Is there only one of them? This was an interesting avenue, but it was left unexplored elsewhere in the performance, and this led me to feel as though not a lot of thought had been given to the way in which the patients were addressed and their relationship with one another. Perhaps this, along with Kyle and Fish's multi-roling, was a choice made to add that Everyman quality to the text, but I cannot be too sure. This could have been made clearer, whatever the decision was.
The only downfall for this performance, really, was its repetitiveness and literalness. The overall performance was very stereotypical of a generalised mental illness: the rocking back and forth, the head-banging and hair-ripping. Whilst, as I mentioned previously, there were a lot of effective grotesque visuals, there was also a tendency to overplay this madness.
Repetition played its part principally at the end and beginning of a lot of scenes: the doctor would make a bold statement and exit robotically along an imagined grid, leaving the patient behind to holler and rock in frustration. As the text is rather repetitive sometimes, in the doctors' manner of addressing the patients, for example, a variation in scenes is crucial. The return to a solo mime with a text-plastered backdrop, however positively grotesque, can only be made a certain number of times.
This repetition and literalness really did dampen the performance for me, especially towards the end with the systematic lining-up and grid-walking. That was particularly exhausting to watch. The visual left at the very end, though, very engaging.
Overall, a very impressive realisation of a complex and esoteric playtext. Perhaps a tad too literal and repetitive in physicalisation, but a well-designed and visually effective performance nevertheless.