Culture | Face to face with depression

Theatre In Actu’s small-scale production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis

The rise of film and television seems to have all but taken over the depiction of human drama, nudging theatre into an esoteric corner for a cultured few. One explanation for this shift is the convenient accessibility these media offer their audience. It is within this lack of convenience, however, that lies theatre’s power: in a culture brimming with portable media, theatre may just be the only art form that requires the spectator’s physical presence.

Theatre In Actu’s production of 4.48 Psychosis, the last work by controversial British playwright Sarah Kane, takes full advantage of this aspect of theatre. The play is presented in a small space, in which 10 chairs are placed on either side of a small, floor-level stage.

This set-up is particularly well-suited to the intimate nature of the play’s subject matter, which chronicles a clinically depressed mind’s last attempts to unify its fragmented self as it slips into madness. By having the audience and the minimal set surrounded by white curtains, director Liz Truchanowicz gives viewers the impression that they are actually within the central character’s mental space. The audience cannot escape what is happening on stage. There is no distance between actor and spectator – not even enough room to stretch one’s legs.

The actors playing the male (Shane Houlston) and female (Stephanie Breton) halves of the segmented mind directly engage with the viewers – once even circling the audience, staring coldly into their eyes, standing only a few feet away. This delivery, coupled with the intense, emotional language, sent chills down my spine. Truchanowicz noted that she wanted to evoke “a theatrical experience, shared with the actors.”

The audience is even brought into the narrative through the use of lighting. As Truchanowicz notes: “When I felt that the audience was directly implicated in the action of [the play], the backlights would come on, exposing audience members sitting across from you.” Not only does this further involve the audience in the play’s action, it raises the problematic relationship between the audience’s intimate presence and the central character’s internal struggle. Are we mere voyeurs, witnessing the descent of a mind into psychosis and maybe even suicide? Or are we an active part of the society that is driving her to the brink of insanity?

Truchanowicz’s purposeful mise en scène allows for the play’s difficult themes of despair and madness to unfold freely, resulting in a powerful, immediate experience. In this case, the audience becomes a metaphor for society; as Truchanowicz explains, the play stipulates that “society is implicit to what happens to the individual.”

For their production of Psychosis 4.48, In Actu partnered with Suicide Action Montreal, an organization aimed at preventing suicides from occurring and educating the families and friends of people suffering from depression and suicidal thoughts. Sarah Kane herself took her life shortly after completing the play. And although suicide is a central theme of the play, it shouldn’t be seen as an elaborate suicide note. Rather, the troupe’s interpretation of Kane’s difficult script succeeds in communicating the thoughts and torments of someone suffering from clinical depression.

The play is a challenging production because it forces the audience to take part in the internal struggle of the clinically depressed. Along with the script’s rejection of traditional theatrical form, the production is emotionally and intellectually demanding. Those planning on attending, however, may find it rewarding to be thrust into a realm radically outside their comfort zones.

4.48 Psychosis is playing until September 26 at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts Lab Space (5170 Côte-Ste-Catherine) at 9 p.m. Tickets are $20 for general admission, $15 for students. Tickets are available at or at the door.

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