4:48 Psychosis – Lisa chats with Anthony Skuse (Theatre Interview)

4:48 Psychosis is at The Old Fitz from 16 August to 9 September. You can grab your tickets here. 

The Sydney theatre community is maturing into a distinctive vehicle for theatre written about, for and engaged with the female voice. It’s a thrilling time for a witness such as myself. A time filled with inspiration, recognition and engagement. Red Line Productions at The Old Fitz is one of the significant contributors to this trajectory. In a week or so they, along with Workhorse Productions, will host Sarah Kane on their stage, directed by Anthony Skuse – a combination that will surely prove to be a formidable force. Red Line’s website carries this blurb:

Hailed as the young playwright of her generation Sarah Kane lays her soul bare as she disintegrates before you and sheds light on the darkness and struggle of mental illness. The Guardian said of Sarah “Sarah Kane wrote simply and starkly about the world she saw around her… a mature and vividly theatrical response to the pain of living” In her final note to her agent regarding 4:48 Psychosis Sarah Kane wrote “do with it what you will, just remember — writing it killed me”. Containing no characters, stage directions or specified setting 4:48 is as unique as it is harrowing. Poetic, angry, full of love and frustration and darkly humorous this extraordinary work explores parts of the mind very few of us ever experience but from which some can never escape.

I was lucky enough to ask Anthony Skuse about this play and his directorial process. His answers are disarming and powerful. I had a wonderful time considering what I would really like to ask, and he has generously gone deep and returned to the surface with a fist of pearls.



LT: Sarah Kane is a complex interpretive process for any director. How have you approached 4:48 Psychosis? Is your analysis and interpretation coming from the text, audience or creatives perspective? Or all three?


AS: The text. It is the text that inform all the choices in the room. For me a playwright’s script is like a musical score. I’m fascinated by the investigation and the way in which its music moves me. It seems to me that Kane’s text’s is full of literary references and associations, in particular to texts from the early modern period. Mark Ravenhill referred to her as a contemporary writer with a classical sensibility. For me those echoes of Marlow or Middleton are very rich and illuminating. The play has the shadow of the anatomical theatres of the seventeenth century, and Racine’s anti-chamber, which is the site of language, not action. At a certain point I do consider how an audience might receive an image, but that is something I ultimately can’t control.


LT: By using an endless play of modifications and repetitions, Kane makes it possible to set aside the extrinsic. However, she doesn’t fall into the problem of essential knowledge of depression and psychosis, rather forging a kind of path that makes us all feel we are part of a broader psychosis. What internal process led you to an assimilation between the individual witness (audience member) and the institutionalised (or psychotic)? Or do you prefer to paint them as having a wall between them?


AS: My internal process comes as much from living with my husband’s severe depression, as anything else. Everyone involved in the production has had some experience of mental illness. At times the play is very close to the lived experiences of the company. That said, I’m not interested in trying to explain the play in prosaic terms. One of the actors brought in a PHD thesis that sort to identified each of the sequences in terms of the playwright’s history of treatment: this is her first admission, this the second. I found it reductive and unhelpful. The piece situates us inside the skin of the woman. As you say, it’s not interested in the extrinsic details. Our scenographic intention is to create a shared environment with no boundaries. We sit inside the mental and emotional world of the play.


LT: The ideal of an exhaustive description, (Lacan’s famous unfulfilled desire of the clinician “tu étais ce” – “you were this”) implies a desire to label that which is seen. Kane argues what we see in depression is not what we think we see. How does your interpretation of 4:48 Psychosis create a correlation between the visible and the expressible?


AS: Your question reminds me of working on Mark Ravenhill’s pool (no water). I felt the burden of living up to the Frantic Assembly production, and thought my actors had to jump off the walls to make it work. But we found that the text did the work for us, the process was about reducing unnecessary movement. I think 4.48 is very similar. I love and admire the work of Pina Bausch and Sasha Waltz, and want to rush head on into that physical world, but I do think the 4.48 has more in common with the stillness of Racine. That said, Alex (the lightning designer) and myself are very interested in the kinetic potential of the lights to change the dynamic in the space… on a shoe-string, this being an independent production. I think that answers your question in a round about manner.


LT: Both Sarah Kane and Sylvia Plath killed themselves after writing important works. “There is only one really serious philosophical problem,” Camus says, “and that is suicide. Deciding whether or not life is worth living is to answer the fundamental question in philosophy.” … For Camus, “Should I kill myself?” is the essential philosophical question. Should art only concern itself with this fundamental question of life, death and what it means to be alive? If it deals with this already, why do you think we become desensitised to its power?


AS: I don’t think we do. Well I don’t. The very act of standing up is a battle against gravity, which expresses the dilemma of death. Whether I’m working with actors in a mask class, or on scene work, I’m often struck by the fact that what we are investigating, is our relationship to death. It seems to me that all art deals with that question. The very nature of live performance articulates the push-pull between presence and absence. Of course it requires a level of introspection on the part of the audience, but who wants to live without that? It makes you feel alive.


LT: Part of the woman’s frustration in 4:48 Psychosis is that she has been reduced to her symptoms. Yet to exist in a functioning society is to be reduced to symbols of effectiveness – symptoms of ideology. As a director, how do you balance creative freedom with the symptoms of a successful project? How do you know when to break out and court confusion, and when to obey and solicit consensus?


AS: I attempt to respond to a work as honestly and as authentically as I can. It’s what moves or intrigues me, that drives the work. Of course I have artists that I look up to and admire, but I can’t manufacture their work. At the end of the process, I hope the work will touch someone. I know others will be left cold. And thus it has always been. I have a particular sensitivity that I bring to a work, I don’t think in terms of confusion and consensus. The doubts come when I think I should be emulating someone else’s style. It’s a creative black-hole. And of course, I get frustrated by the fact that not everyone engages with the endeavour of a project. Particularly when I’m working on new writing, outside of the support network of a funded company. In the independent sector creative freedom is often curtailed by financial constraints. And in Sydney, most directors are limited to working in tiny corners, scale and expanse is something we don’t get to play with. But on the other hand, the thing that interests me is the proximity of the experience. That is one of the benefits music has over theatre; you can be in a large space, and the sound will still reach your soul.