Just a word on the page and there is the drama

4.48 Psychosis - Sarah Kane

After a week of reflection I finally find myself with the words to write about Philip Venable’s new setting of the Sarah Kane text, 4.48 Psychosis, which we were workshopping at the Guildhall School last week. Philip is currently composer-in-residence at the Royal Opera House, and as part of their partnership with the Guildhall School six of us were invited to spend a week exploring the work with the musical and production team, including Philip himself, conductor Richard Baker and director Ted Huffman.

The aim of the week was to allow the team to hear sections of the work live before final scores are printed and it goes into production. We were visited by the cast, members of the ROH marketing team, and various production designers - all of them there to capture a sense of the piece that they will be creating themselves in a few months’ time. As the ‘guinea-pig’ singers we were able to say what we thought did and didn’t work, and explore how best to create and describe certain vocal effects. 

It has been an immense privilege to be a small part of the genesis of this work, and I have found it fascinating to experience the fluidity of this creative process. There is no music other than the newest of new music, with which one can experiment in such an extreme fashion. In some instances, the notes on the page were literally being re-written as they were played. That is what the workshop process is for - to experiment, to play, to go on a musical adventure - to explore the work and to find the best way to achieve a total fulfilment of the composer’s intention; to breathe life into the notes and words on the page. And most excitingly, to do all this while the composer is sitting in the room with you. You can only wonder whether Mozart, Verdi and Puccini all enjoyed the same privilege. 

The greatest challenge for me was living with the text in the weeks leading up to, and in the week of the workshop. It certainly redefined the meaning of ‘January Blues’ and also made me aware of, and grateful for, my own sanity and support network at school, at home, and also within the 4.48 Psychosis rehearsal room.

Readers who know the play, or the general style of Sarah Kane, will be aware of its brutality and this is particularly apparent in the context of 4.48 Psychosis - which some believe to have been Kane’s suicide note. If audiences find it hard to hear the words ‘I fucked small children while they begged for mercy’, I promise them that it is infinitely more difficult to say (or sing) them. In writing this text Kane may have been aiming to provoke shock and discomfort, but I also find the text a desperate cry for attention, and more importantly, for understanding.

In an age where mental illness still needs to be better understood, I think it is important to surface works such as this. I have heard people say that the subject matter is overdone, but these words must keep being said until somebody listens. I found its realisation in music shone a different light on the text, finding humour and light relief where I might not have read it myself, but also reinventing its anguish in a completely compelling and agonising way. It will be fascinating to experience it from the other side, as an audience member at the Lyric Hammersmith in May. Readers, I urge you go. Only take a friend. And maybe a bottle of wine. Possibly a counsellor too.