sat 25/05/2024

4 48 Psychosis, Royal Opera, Lyric Hammersmith | reviews, news & interviews

4.48 Psychosis, Royal Opera, Lyric Hammersmith

4.48 Psychosis, Royal Opera, Lyric Hammersmith

A musical dramatisation of Sarah Kane's classic play finds both pain and consolation

Ted Huffman's production lets Philip Venables' score do all the talkingStephen Cummiskey

New operas are a risky business, or so the Royal Opera’s past experience teaches us. For years, visiting the company’s Linbury Studio Theatre was like rolling the dice while on a losing streak: vain, desperate hope followed inevitably by disappointment. Glare, The Virtues of Things, Clemency, the failed experiment that was OperaShots. But recently things have taken a turn. Gradually, thanks to works from Birtwistle, Haas and more, the risk has begun to pay off.

Now Philip Venables’s 4.48 Psychosis – the first opera to emerge from the Royal Opera’s joint Composer-in-Residence doctorate with the Guildhall School of Music & Drama – gives the company its first truly home-grown hit.

Sarah Kane’s final work (first staged at the Royal Court in 2000, over a year after the author’s suicide) is art stripped of its aesthetic shell. 4.48 Psychosis has no characters, no setting, no stage direction beyond frequent silences. It’s a play only in so far as it is written by a playwright, performed on a stage. It’s this very indeterminacy, this fluidity that makes this urgent meditation on love, depression and death so natural a vehicle for someone else’s art. What Kane gives us is naked emotion; what Venables does is clothe it in music.

A cast of six female singers share Kane’s fractured text among themselves

Like a dramatic Waste Land, 4.48 is a collection of fragments – characters, conversations, vignettes, moments – shored against ruin. Picking his way through the chattering textual landscape with infinite care and understanding, cutting little text and adding none, Venables groups the material into genres. The structure that emerges is something like a sketch show; musical and dramatic tropes or textures return again and again, gaining weight and significance cumulatively through repetition and juxtaposition.

Conversations between the central character and her doctor, for example, are rendered – in a brilliant bit of musical inspiration – by percussion. Text appears, projected in Ted Huffman’s production onto the white walls of the set, and is “spoken” rhythmically by pairs of untuned percussion characters – a bass drum and a side drum, for example. The effect of these wordless exchanges is gloriously bathetic. There’s whimsy here but also sharper-edged wit, as when the drum punches out Kane’s dry retort to criticism of an over-elaborate suicide plan: “It couldn’t possibly be misconstrued as a cry for help.”

Other recurring textures include the use of pre-recorded elevator muzak (musical punctuation between episodes), and a frenetic Glass-esque chuntering of wind instruments to accompany a numeric visual motif. Set against these fixed musical landmarks, stand-alone episodes make far greater impact. An exquisite aria for Clare Presland, sung over a synthesised accompaniment, is equal parts Purcell and pop song, a musical memory that offers a sustained moment of stillness, refusing to give way to the assault of other words and sounds.

A cast of six female singers – sopranos Jennifer Davis, Susanna Hurrell and Gweneth-Ann Rand, and mezzos Emily Edmonds, Clare Presland and Lucy Schaufer – share Kane’s fractured text among themselves, with the help of pre-recorded speech and the musical interventions of CHROMA, conducted here by Richard Baker. Venables’s orchestration (light on strings, heavy on saxophones and keyboards textures) is spare but telling, cultivating a mechanistic quality even when combining purely acoustic instruments that refuses to sentimentalise the outpourings of Kane’s speakers. Paired with the heady, giddy texture of so many upper voices, the result feels dangerously unanchored, unmoored from bass certainty and support.

With so much of the drama taking place either in music or text (projected or spoken), Huffman’s job as a director is largely to keep out of the way. This he does efficiently enough, treating his cast variously as split personalities of a single self and also as outside individuals – doctors, friends, possibly even lovers. Rand (pictured left) provides the central self, her physical vulnerability at odds with her vocal control, while each of the other singers takes it in turns to dominate, to voice a specific set of concerns or preoccupations.

A final ensemble brings all voices together as lapping waves of sound – a rare moment of musical calm, that hints at a redemption, or at least a peace, that the text cannot find for itself. It’s a moment in which ownership of this drama seems to change hands, passing from written word to musical sound, from Kane to Venables.


Venables picks his way through the chattering textual landscape with infinite care and understanding


Editor Rating: 
Average: 4 (1 vote)

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