Designing Deafinitely Theatre’s 4.48 Psychosis

We’ve been getting some very enthusiastic responses from audience members for our production of Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis, and some great reviews, so I thought it might be worth sharing some thoughts on my design process.

The play is hard to read on the page: hard in two senses of the word. It’s gruelling emotionally but also abstracted, opaque, fractured and ambiguous. It’s constructed from fragments of naturalistic dialogue, inner monologue and poetry, all shored up into a kind of barrier against obvious interpretation. The author’s own distressing experiences are rendered into a set of cyphers that hide her personal truths from the people watching, reading or making a performance of the play. The temptation, therefore, is to try to find the key to unlock the code and expose her original meanings, but this seems to me to be a pointless – and impossible – quest. Instead, each production should create its own key, and decode these fragments into a new set of meanings that resonate for the artists involved. That’s very much what happened here, with director Paula Garfield’s emphasis on two overlapping crises of mental health – one amongst the deaf population and one amongst men – and the communication failures and lack of comprehension that exacerbate them.

While the play could work in a purely abstract space, because of Paula’s initial vision for the piece, we wanted something that could also be specific, clinical and claustrophobic. It also felt right, however, to create a space that comments on the nature of the play at a more metatextual level: to acknowledge it as something difficult, challenging, and ultimately impossible to pin down. So we created a barrier – a literal one, in the form of a Perspex screen – that partially muffles the sound and obscures some of the captions, making them harder (but still possible) to read. This is a play you should have to work at, and it is not the role of the captions in this production to spoon-feed the audience. In fact, having started by captioning almost all the text that wasn’t both spoken and signed, we pared the captions right down. They’re just fragments of the written text: fragments of fragments. This not only seems the most appropriate way to render the play, it also acknowledges that, with deaf performers, especially when using visual vernacular, the text is embodied in their movements in a way that does not need explanation. Sometimes the meaning is direct and clear: sometimes it speaks on a more instinctive level. Sometimes it does both at once. Whichever way, the gesture, the physicality, is enough.

Additionally, the way the Perspex affects sounds is a nod to the experience of deafness – something our composer and sound designer Chris Bartholomew made the most of by choosing when to use onstage amplification, so every footstep was relayed to the audience, and when to leave the hearing members of the audience in relative quiet. (It’d be interesting to work with a bilingual BSL/English production in a totally soundproof box sometime – that’s one for my wish list!)  In parallel to this, his brilliant composed soundscape vibrated through the seating, allowing the audience to feel the music.

Visually, our aim was to create a space that could shift in an instant between a hospital-like setting and something far more interior and psychological. As AV designer (as well as designing set and costumes) I worked closely with lighting designer Joe Hornsby to achieve this. And I challenge you to work out, in some scenes, where the lighting ends and the projection begins. I was interested in the way the abstraction in the text is often raw and exposed, even elemental, something that was powerfully expressed by Alim Jayda’s movement directing and the cast’s amazing use of visual vernacular. To support this, I used textures such as skin, smoke and water, placing them in dialogue with the projected words. Joe’s beautiful and thoughtful design also moves between realistic hospital lighting and more abstract use of light: establishing and fragmenting psychological spaces through colour, movement and sometimes darkness. Light is also used to invade the very oppressive, contained space of the set: ventilation panels and drains become cracks where the light gets in, and the ‘hatch’ that is a recurring image in the text is a light from an unseen source above the stage. It hints at something transcendent although all this symbolism is of course highly ambiguous in a play where light is both a signifier of clarity and ‘the light of despair’.

None of this was achieved easily, it has to be said. A major influence on Kane was Howard Barker, a playwright I’m a huge admirer of. In one of the prologues to his play The Bite of the Night, he imagines someone being persuaded to watch a ‘difficult’ play: she eventually concludes ‘Because I found it hard I felt honoured’. For me, a key part of this association between difficulty and honouring the audience is openly sharing the journey the play has taken us on as theatre-makers, however challenging that may be, as opposed to undergoing that journey in a closed rehearsal room, then presenting the easy-to-digest version. Making this production was an appropriately difficult process. Some things were not clear until we were working in the venue with the set and projection. Other things were not clear till we had an audience. But what we have now is, I think, an authentically felt and dramaturgically cohesive interpretation of Kane’s text that is truly honest with its audience. I’m very proud indeed of what we’ve achieved.

(Photo credit: Becky Bailey)

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