It’s a truism, even a cliché, in our culture that we can’t really know what other people are thinking or feeling. We say things like “I can’t imagine how you feel right now” or “I know I can’t possibly understand what you’re thinking”. It takes just a moment’s thought to realize that the only possible way for us to know whether we can’t truly imagine or understand how someone else is thinking or feeling is if we can understand or imagine how they’re thinking or feeling — because we would need to compare that information against our thoughts. The only way you can know whether or not a tree is an elm is to understand what elms are and thus compare the tree you see to that knowledge. Without that kind of information these sentimental but well-meaning banalities have no basis and much of the time are probably false.
Our primary pathway to understanding how other people feel and think is empathy, the ability to take on another person’s perspective and imagine how their circumstances affect them. We do this by drawing analogies between their experiences and our own experiences, using what we remember from our own lives to help us piece together what might be happening in the minds and hearts of other people. It’s an ability that the majority of people are born with, as humans exhibit simple forms of empathy even as babies. It’s also a skill that can be developed, practiced, and refined through intentional rehearsal, reflection, communication and — most importantly for a theatre company — exposure to the lives and stories of people very different from ourselves.
A commitment to helping people develop empathy in the way I’ve just described was one of the core principles of Post Productions when it was founded in 2016 and the company has remained committed to that principle ever since. So why not kick off the 2024 season with the most provocative double-feature of plays we could find to help people understand themselves and others with deeper insight and fresh perspective? And why not make sure that, along the way, everyone gets some big laughs and leaves the show asking themselves and their friends new questions?
4.48 Psychosis was the final play by the esteemed and often misunderstood British genius Sarah Kane (Blasted) before her tragic suicide in 1999. Unfortunately, she did not live to see the first production of this uniquely insightful and utterly gripping play, produced the following year. As with all of her previous work, 4.48 Psychosis was and remains controversial. This is a fate that often befalls anything worth thinking or talking about. After all, the best way to avoid controversy is to stick to what is conventional. That which is conventional is, necessarily, mediocre. Mediocrity is dull and devoid of insight but people like it because it’s comfortable. Kane’s suicide made 4.48 Psychosis even more controversial than it would have been anyway because the play is about an unnamed woman who is contemplating suicide. Her plan is to kill herself at precisely 4:48 AM.
Because Kane was an insightful and unconventional playwright 4.48 Psychosis doesn’t treat suicide with any sort of triviality or sentimentality. The play doesn’t gloss over the existential weight of its subject matter. It doesn’t overdramatize it either, or make it seem like some sort of otherworldly act contemplated only by twisted and perverse beings. This is a choice open to all people at all times as existentialists have been trying to tell us for about a century. Moreso, as Albert Camus wrote, “There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide. Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. All the rest — whether or not the world has three dimensions, whether the mind has nine or twelve categories —come afterwards”.
Most people are able to find all sorts of reasons to stay alive. From a Buddhist perspective, this is due in part to our attachment to people and things. It’s the same attachment that causes us to suffer. It’s what holds us back from enlightenment. That doesn’t mean Buddhists council suicide — I haven’t met any who did. It just means that a serious and insightful and honest approach to this topic requires understanding its nuances and subtleties and complexities. It means recognizing that although most people find many reasons to live, some don’t. Some never will, but some will eventually. And some people who have many reasons to live now may find themselves in a different position decades later. 4.48 Psychosis asks us to empathize with, to truly understand, the life of a woman who has tried over and over to answer Camus’ question in a socially acceptable (some might say positive) way, but failed.
She’s tried all of the standard interventions available to her. She’s given in to the medicalization of the mind and thus subjected herself to a battery of medications that promise to change how she thinks and feels. She’s talked to counsellors. She’s tried religion. She’s sought refuge in the indulgence of her genius, writing plays that were instantly considered seminal works of art and will still be considered such centuries from now. She’s sought and found love. She’s sought and found friendship. But none of these have made a difference when it comes to what she plans to do. All of these paths have worsened her sense of alienation from the world, made her feel less understood, and driven her to believe that she may never have had a self to begin with. Can we, as audience members so committed to being alive that we are sitting in a room watching live theatre, understand this woman’s mind and choices?
4.48 Psychosis is a visceral, beautiful, harrowing, dreamlike, unsettling, and unforgettable poem of a play. In the play, Kane is represented by a patient who in the minutes leading up to 4:48 AM experiences the world as a chaotic tangle of emotions — love, confusion, joy, sorrow, bewilderment, disembodiment, bemusement, anger, longing, and grief. Many of these emotions are conveyed to her by voices in the void that surrounds her bed, voices with which she sometimes interacts. For me the chaos itself, the chaos we witness the patient experiencing in her mind as the clock ticks away to 4:48, is one of the most profound statements the play makes. It complicates depression by removing it from the medicalization that has mischaracterized it for decades by situating it instead as an existential response to, and a consequence of, the inner experience of fracturing under the weight of one’s own rage. At one point in the play, the patient tells one of her doctors, “Depression is anger. It’s what you did, who was there, and who you’re blaming”. Coping with that anger isn’t a simple matter; it draws in nearly all other experiences and blends itself with all other emotions we feel like a chunky but not at all tasty salsa.
Despite the heavy subject matter 4.48 Psychosis isn’t a sad or unpleasant play — not at all. Uncomfortable, yes. Unpleasant, no. That we would expect it to be exposes our own biases and should remind us that our minds are different from Kane’s. The play embraces and enacts a wide variety of moments, the full spectrum of human emotion. It has moments of joy. It celebrates absurdity. It pokes fun at itself, and at us, in equal measure. This isn’t, as some less astute critics believed when the play premiered, a suicide note.
Because 4.48 Psychosis is a short one-act play — both as long and as short as it needs to be — Post Productions hunted high and low for a companion play that suited it, but dealt with similar themes in a very different way. Not a copy but a true companion. Thankfully, playwright John Clancy (Fatboy) had sent us a copy of his award-winning and internationally acclaimed one-act play, The Event, last June. We wish we had known about this incredible script earlier, but we were facing such a backlog of scripts that we didn’t get the chance to read it for several months. Once we did two things became immediately clear: 1) The Event is an absolutely brilliant, incisive, hilarious, profound, and powerful script; 2) it’s the perfect companion piece for 4.48 Psychosis. Where the two plays overlap thematically, they do so from utterly different angles and perspectives, so that each meaningfully compliments the other. But they are two very different scripts as well, resulting in two very different plays that when experienced together as one night of live theatre will make audiences feel as though all of the decorative nonsense that stands between our minds and reality, all the natural and artificial barriers that prevent us from understanding ourselves and others have been dismantled in under two hours.
4.48 Psychosis & The Event is a double-feature produced by Post Productions. 4.48 Psychosis is written by Sarah Kane. The Event is written by John Clancy. Both plays are directed by Michael K. Potter and produced by Fay Lynn and Michael K. Potter. 4.48 Psychosis stars Maggie Marchenkowsky, Courtesy Lebert, and Fay Lynn. The Event stars Heath Camlis. Posters and programs are designed by Kris Simic.
Performances will take place at The Shadowbox Theatre (1501 Howard Ave, corner of Howard and Shepherd) February 16, 17, 22, 23, 24, 29; March 1 & 2. Showtime 8:00 PM (doors open 7:30). Tickets can be purchased for $25 through postproductionswindsor.ca or at the door (cash, debit, or credit card) if seats are still available. Presented in association with Windsor Feminist Theatre.