Friday, November 04, 2005

4.48 psychose

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(Long entry. Looooongggg. And probably lots of verb tense mix-ups. Like your favorite cocktail. Bring me my mojito with the past present! Wheeeee!)

This past friday, I went to see Isabelle Huppert in 4.48 Psychose. I think I was sufficiently warned about this difficult theatrical experience. First of all, it's Isabelle Huppert; what I know of her work is enough to cause squishy happy huggy people to explode with combustible troubled thinking into noir-ish smoke. I knew the play was something to the tune of Sarah Kane's exploration of deep depression and contemplations on suicide. Plus, ticket-buyers also received a letter in the mail beforehand making sure we understood that the play, originally in English, was to be performed entirely in French, with "relatively rare" supertitles. The director Claude Régy also chimed in: The static actress is the center. It is through her face, her voice, her body, that the whole "show" takes place...It would be destroying Isabelle Huppert's work if one had to look up too often in order to read the supertitles. Okay – super depressing static untraditional play in mostly untranslated French by one of the most intimidating actors alive today in an intermissionless 1 hour and 45 minute work. Give me my popcorn and m&ms and bring in the clowns! the sad crazy french clowns and let's get this crazy whirlwind of fun circus started!!

So I was a bit nervous as I sat down in the balcony of BAM and snuck some bites of chocolate before the lights went dark to calm my elementary French understanding nerves. Then after a bit of silence, there is Huppert, standing center stage in a rectangular pool of light with actor Gérard Watkins behind a scrim. The play is written out almost like free-form poetry. Thus, dialogue is not necessarily assigned to specific people. The first production of the play had three actors, while in this, Huppert was the character struggling with psychosis, with herself, and Watkins was the ambiguous conflation of doctor/lover/oppressor/outsider who remained behind that scrim when he was visible. And not more than fifteen minutes passed when people started leaving the theater. Didn't they get the letter? I pondered. In any case, the leaving, which continued at a trickle throughout the next half hour, was otherwise totally understandable, as a matter of taste and level of French comprehension.

While I find the lack of translation thing rather questionable, I wonder how the perceptions of the audiences were affected differently, depending on their competence in the language. I think I got by with maybe 40-50% of the French, even with the help of the "rare supertitles," and for me, for a good amount of the time the gap didn't matter so much right then. It made me pay perhaps the closest attention I have ever had to in the theater, to the sound of the words and their rhythms, to Huppert's stare at us and her vocal modulations (or lack thereof), her barely noticeable shifts with her hands. And made me wish I was sitting closer.

The performance had the curious quality of being absolutely riveting while having very little expression of outward emotion, with mostly slow, sharp pronunciation, with occasional loudening and rhythmic incantations of adjectives, verbs, and downers like "No hope. No hope. No hope......" This Times review is spot on, likening Huppert's delivery of the text to a French diction class. Except instead of, "Please give me a coffee," it's declarations like, "I feel that the future is hopeless and that things cannot improve."

It wasn't all doom and gloom. Throughout the piece, there is humor... of the doom and gloom. The darkest and gallowiest of humors: sharp, dry, sardonic, but quite funny, if you appreciate that sort of thing. "Have you made any plans," the shadowy doctor asks. "Take an overdose, slash my wrists then hang myself." [beat] "All those things together?" A bit later: "I dreamt I went to the doctor's and she gave me eight minutes to live. I'd been sitting in the fucking waiting room half an hour." Yeah, life's like that sometimes.

The title comes from the time of early morning that Kane would awake during a period of depression and find herself in a state of clarity, a state which she called sanity, and as in the play 4:48 was a kind of "happy hour." (Huppert threw out those two words in English, perfectly, with a throaty world weariness.)

But the questioning of this work, structured and poetic as it is, as a piece of theater rolls easily off the brain. It's different, alright, but is this theater? Is there drama and all its trappings up there on the stage? Well, it doesn't have many trappings, and without a powerful actor like Huppert, I can imagine that it is near impossible to stage and some people would find this a boooooorrrringggg snoozefest in any staging. But I think this production made it work. Huppert's near impassive and immobile acting was appropriate, embodying the paralysis rendered by the chaos of the inside and the incapability to really take part in, to take in, life. She cannot Do things. This character is so angry, so begging to be saved, and to be loved, not to be looked at but watch her, she wants you to watch her disappear. She wants to die but she wants to live too. It's an utterly shifty state, which seems to call out for the immediacy of theatre, its verbalization and dialogue open for an audience to take all that in, all that madness and frustration and your own distance or proximity to someone else's breach from the so-called sane.

Kane killed herself not long after finishing this work at the age of twenty-eight, a fact that haunts the work and plops itself with no subtlety into every discussion of the play. Perhaps not fair, but near impossible to separate. But the intro to the complete plays of Sarah Kane brings up a good point and another reason why this works for the stage, describing the play's openness as something that allows the audience "to enter and recognise themselves within." The experience was fascinating, frightening, resonant, stark, and in large part thanks to one of the craziest, and yes talented, actresses of today and a really powerful work of art.

More on Sarah Kane

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