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Annie Nakao, Chronicle Staff Writer
Published 4:00 am, Wednesday, November 10, 2004
Sarah Kane’s last play, “4.48 Psychosis,” ends with a haunting cry from the depths of suicidal depression:
“Watch me vanish
watch me vanish
The brilliantly gifted British playwright killed herself in February 1999 after writing “Psychosis.” She took 150 anti-depressants and 50 sleeping pills, but was saved after a flatmate found her. Two days later, Kane, left alone for 90 minutes, slipped into a hospital bathroom and hanged herself by her shoelaces. She was 28 years old.
Five years after her death, “4.48 Psychosis” makes its American premiere on a six-city U.S. tour. After runs in New York and Los Angeles, the Royal Court Theatre production premieres at Cal Performances today at Berkeley’s Zellerbach Playhouse.
The title refers to 4:48 a.m., the time when, as Kane noted, “desperation visits” and most suicides occur.
Kane’s own suicide — very much like her tumultuous 1995 premiere in which she was vilified as an enfant terrible — rocked Europe, where she was an icon. Though she wrote only five plays, Kane is regarded as one of the most celebrated dramatists of the late 20th century; her works are uncompromising examinations of violence, rape, war and other descents into human darkness.
Inevitably, her suicide has cloaked her brief career with the romance of the depressed poet cut short by suicide or other tragedy. Sylvia Plath comes to mind. But Plath biographer Diane Middlebrook finds the poetic image a cliche, and the notion of a “literature of despair” an illusion.
“There’s a dangerous kind of illusion of putting the work together with the actual act of suicide,” said Middlebrook. “People want to put it together because they have to try to explain it.”
Indeed, the nature of Kane’s last play and subsequent suicide has suggested to some that “4.48 Psychosis” might have been her suicide note, a notion rejected by her older brother, Simon Kane.
“I would hate it if people thought the reason for the success of the play was Sarah’s suicide,” he said from New York, where he’s been on tour with the play. “I want people to look at it as a play and judge it as a play. It’s not simply biography.”
Kane, 35, executor of his sister’s estate, was so worried the work might be misinterpreted that until now, he has turned down requests from American theater companies to produce the play.
It’s no coincidence this production is being mounted by the prestigious Royal Court Theatre, Britain’s 116-year-old national company that has long introduced new voices to the stage. It was a way of introducing Kane to an unfamiliar audience, says Kane’s agent and friend, Mel Kenyon.
“We were wary that people could be attracted to the work for entirely the wrong reasons,” said Kenyon on the phone from London. “There’s a kind of ghoulish fascination with the very talented who commit suicide. It also takes a particular kind of empathetic understanding, a willingness to subject oneself to the bleaker aspects of life in order to capture the essence of Sarah’s work. I don’t want to belittle American culture, but it’s much more aligned to the notion of entertainment than it is using theater as a force for psychological, emotional or political change. By and large, there’s no desire to go into the inner resources of the darkness of the human psyche.”
However, both Simon Kane and Kenyon felt comfortable with this production, directed by James MacDonald, a close friend of Sarah Kane. He directed her first play, “Blasted,” a visceral depiction of the brutality of the Bosnian War.
It was “Blasted’s” shocking scenes of rapes, eye-gougings, hangings and cannibalism that catapulted Kane into a hailstorm of controversy. British critics called it “abject puerility,” “naive tosh” and “a disgusting feast of filth,” while dramatists like Harold Pinter and Edward Bond praised Kane, saying the work was too good for the critics to fathom.
It was the Royal Court’s biggest controversy since Bond’s play, “Saved,” riled critics 30 years ago with a baby-stoning scene.
MacDonald, who sat in the tiny Royal Court Upstairs theater when it first was performed, said Kane was stung by the furor.
“It was incredibly hard,” said MacDonald from New York. “She’d written this play she was absolutely passionate about, a serious exploration of some of the problems in the world. But to have it kind of denounced as a gratuitous shock fest was very upsetting to her.”
Kane was 23 years old at the time. The daughter of a former Daily Mirror journalist, she grew up in Essex and graduated with high honors in drama from Bristol University. She was a handsome, vivacious young woman with a cuttingly sharp wit and explosive intellect. Yet she was also shy and generous.
Kenyon first met Kane after seeing the germ of “Blasted” after sitting through hours of a year-end show by students at Birmingham.
Kane’s piece was the very last.
“It started out and there was almost a preternatural hush that went around the auditorium,” Kenyon said. “I thought, oh, my God, you could hear a pin drop. That’s when I thought, this girl has it in spades.”
In the play, a middle-aged tabloid journalist is dying and invites a naive young woman to tend to him in a posh hotel room. He abuses her, then is raped himself by a soldier as the scene morphs into a Bosnian battlefield.
The first line uttered by the man, is, “I’ve s — in better places than this.” The girl, after sniffing some flowers in the room, says, “Lovely.”
“With just those lines, she set up the entire world of the characters with such brevity and instinctive understanding,” Kenyon said.
Kenyon says she couldn’t get the play out of her head. Two weeks later, she asked to see the rest of it and ended up becoming Kane’s agent.
Two other Kane plays premiered at the Royal Court, “Cleansed,” in 1998, and “4.48 Psychosis” in 2000. Eventually her worst critics changed their minds. But Kane remained cynical about reporters, joking that the “only good journalist was a dead journalist.”
Despite her fearsome scripts, Kane struck most people as funny and warm. She especially loved dark jokes.
MacDonald recalled one she told.
“Why did Jesus fall off the cross?” he says. “Because he bit his nails. I think she was aware that humor was a big element in depression.”
Humor is there, even in “Psychosis”: “I dreamt I went to the doctor’s and she gave me eight minutes to live. I’d been sitting in the f — waiting room half an hour.”
Like her other plays, her last is full of long silences and structureless format. “Psychosis” has no specified roles or script: just free-form verse, random numbers and names of pharmaceutical drugs. Yet it hauntingly reflects the desperate state of being depressed and the inefficacy of treatment.
“She was describing a very real state when she was writing ‘4.48,’ ” Kenyon said. “It was an act of extraordinary generosity. She wanted to share it with other people, to make them aware that these things exist.”
Kane had sought treatment for her depression, which had plagued her for many years.
“That help was available but it was nullifying — giving you drugs not to feel or think,” Kenyon said. “That’s very hard when your art exists on your being fully cognizant all the time.” The last time she saw Kane was in the hospital after her suicide attempt with the pills.
“She was fabulously chipper, very funny, very self-possessed,” said Kenyon. “It was a very lovely memory to have of her. Yet I think she was so self-possessed that afternoon because she’d kind of made up her mind. I wasn’t saying goodbye to a depressed little child but a gloriously self-possessed, funny woman who couldn’t bear the notion of going through it all over again.”
4.48 Psychosis: The Royal Court Theatre production premieres today and runs through Sunday at Zellerbach Playhouse, Dana Court at Bancroft Way on the UC Berkeley campus. Tickets available at the Cal Performances Ticket Office at Zellerbach Hall, at (510) 642-9988 or www.calperfs.berkeley.edu.
E-mail Annie Nakao at firstname.lastname@example.org.