“This is not a world within which I want to live” cries a character in Sarah Kane’s masterful and emotionally dark 25 fragments that make up 4.48 Psychosis written during the playwright’s severest bout of depression: an act her friend David Greig describes as “positively heroic”. We are told that Belarus Free Theatre’s performance, directed by Vladimir Schcherban, contains 7 characters that lend disparate voices to the play’s descent into a depressive hell, yet its strategy seems more simple than that as actresses Maryia Sazonava and Yana Rusakevich pound and stalk the cold cells of Clerkenwell House of Detention, the location BFT have chosen as their secret venue, and to which we were quietly shepherded at 6pm from Clerkenwell Green. As the actresses, almost helpless and dumb, observe their characters via video in one of the company’s first performances of the same production in Minsk in 2005, we understand that Psychosis is about outer and inner, about trying to break out of ourselves into another self (as if into a doppelgänger) it’s about mirrors, about self censorship, about how what is reflected back over the physical time of years gone by and over the physical gap between spaces, might help us try to understand something new. Appropriate, for at the beginning of the show, co-founder of Belarus Free Theatre Natalia Kaliada introduced us via Skype to members of their company and audience in Belarus- the company still perform there in secret, despite being banned by the country’s dictator Alexander Lukashenko. Waving at them as they waved at us, a mirror image, yet not quite a mirror image, separated by geographical boundaries as well as political ideologies, we are subtly reminded how civil strife and oppression can impact the self: the self in a country subdued by a dictatorship and the self’s relationship to that self affected and filtered through that oppression. In this production the video projections rarely go away, keeping at the forefront of our consciousnesses how society can and will impact on mental health and encourage self censorship to such an extent that it becomes the norm.
The production doesn’t walk on egg shells. Perhaps drawing on the energy amassed in the prison’s walls with thousands of its past inmates, the performance’s crazy wild abandon and its continuous flow of ecstatic pain is allowed to find itself by being. It’s clever because this is exactly what happens when one is depressed or oppresses the effects of abuse, when there is no appropriate way to behave anymore, no carefully planned words that can be used to illustrate how one feels. Instead it all comes out exactly as it is here: screaming, a torrent and torment of words, as if writing and trying to speak and acting replaces the relief found through self harm. It is just as beautiful as it is ugly.
It is “Love me or leave me alone” or: kill me.
It is questioning having to exist, and yet, through its pleading hysteria and urgency, is more alive than life itself.
The audience isn’t excluded from this. Just as we linked up with the audience in Belarus at the start of the show, we constantly link up with the actors (a BFT performance trait) through their occasional direct address and finger pointing.
“Fuck you for making me feel shit” the actresses scream at us; this open form of performance allowing us to recognise ourselves but also, make us think that we are being accused. This raises a question that Sarah Kane was sometimes concerned with: what should the audience give back in return? Are we to stay passive? Is theatre merely a passive, cathartic experience which we leave at the door of the auditorium as we exit, like discarding an umbrella in the cloakroom because the sun has come out? Or is it something that can prompt us into action, that can ask us to make that painful connection between what we have seen onstage and what is happening now- perhaps to each and every one of us sitting in the room who are an audience to it?
The post show discussion, an integral part of the company’s performances in Belarus and abroad, prevents us from fumbling our way out into the dark with our unanswered questions feeling “Hung. It is done- Please draw the curtains” (we are drawing the curtains: just on old ways of doing theatre). The discussion, in partnership with Mental Health and Young People, including contributions from Dominic Dromgoole and Dr Ann York, helped connect the play’s themes with today’s troubles, especially those of the young, and proposed direct ways that audience members can take action for those they think are suffering mental health problems. Questions were asked- “can you help someone who is not loved?” or “Can you help a person who is in love if it is not returned?” reflections were made on the fact that Lukashenko is adamant that there are no mental health issues in Belarus, although suicide is the second leading cause of death in that country. And that the UK has the highest rate of suicide between 20-30 year olds in Europe.
What is gained through these types of shows coupled with such discussions, is a feeling of a supportive community. It brings people together not just by seeing a show but by talking about it afterwards over shared food with the belief that change can come and then- most important of all- working out how. As has been commented at other post show BFT discussions: we can’t wait for the politicians. We need to make the change and be the change. This is one way to go about it.
4.48 Psychosis is part of Belarus Free Theatre’s Staging a Revolution, a two week festival of performances and discussion platforms from Belarus Free Theatre to mark their 10th anniversary in 2015 (2-14 November).
Performances and discussions will be live-streamed here: http://belarusfreetheatre.com/livestreaming
cast includes: Maryia Sazonava and Yana Rusakevich
directed by: Vladimir Shcherban
written by: Sarah Kane