Date: 16 July 2009
Venue: The Drama Centre Blackbox
by Richard Chua
17 July 2009
Late Singapore theatre doyen Kuo Pao Kun’s famous line, “better a worthy failure, than a mediocre success.” could be aptly applied to The Theatre Practice actor Kuo Jing Hong’s attempt to present late British playwright Sarah Kane’s infamous play 4.48 Psychosis. The play did not sufficiently capture the audience’s imagination. Imagination, in both its positive and – in Sarah Kane’s case – negative sense, should be exercised to its fullest capacity, as Kane’s fragmented text allows directors and actors to approach the text in many different ways, for one, there isn’t a specified number of cast in the script, and two, her meticulous use of language – with every dash signifying a new beginning – provides a tempting invitation to any director and actor to excavate the recesses of her mind. However the script’s openness can be a gift to a director and actor, or a trap.
Director Christina Sergeant’s love for the actor allowing her to immerse fully into the script was evident. For the stage hasn’t been appropriated with the director’s own interpretation of the script; Wong Chee Wai’s stage design merely set the tone for the play. Everything else was Kuo Jing Hong’s own rendition of the script, with Christina Sergeant invisible in the background guiding the play.
As much as a lot of effort have been devoted to the presentation of the script, from metaphorical references through the use of Kuo Jing Hong’s body to lighting changes, to the position of the chair, to how the actor moves in space, unfortunately there wasn’t a chance for the audience to enter into the play, into Sarah Kane’s world. Do not get mistaken with my gripe thinking that the play was self-indulgent. The gate to this performance was always open, but there simply weren’t enough guiding beacons for the audience to enter her mind. To me, one of them – besides directorial strategies – or I should say the most important, is language – the text, something I would like to briefly touch on in this small review. With more than half of the performance is filled with text, specifically the English Language, we cannot simply ignore the fundamental importance English Language and its syntax play in the performance.
It is already a difficult process trying to understand what went through Sarah Kane’s mind when she wrote the play. Maybe she didn’t even have a structure in mind, stringing text as they came along into her head. But the text needs to be communicated. The only way an audience could try to trace her path is through the language and the syntax of English Language, where punctuation and other “tools” come together to “chart” the course of the protagonist in her psychological experience. To get every single element in her sentences right is already a challenge; it takes a highly skilled and disciplined actor to get all the lines in place without any glitches. Glitches are dangerous, especially in 4.48 Psychosis. They will mis-represent the text to the audiences, albeit not intentionally, but they do complicate matters. One example would be sections where another voice came into the space asking questions to the protagonist. The border between “me” and “not me” was blurred, where the stable and coherent identity of one “me” had been interlaced with another “me”: the voice-over. If language in these areas hasn’t been treated with care, making sure that the state of mind of each and every sentence is clearly communicated, audiences will be thrown into confusion, not knowing the various registers of madness, psychotic imaginations and personal confessions the protagonist is trying to convey, through the lines.
However It is this very challenge that makes 4.48 Psychosis extremely exciting. As Julia Kristeva, a Bulgarian-French philosopher, literary critic, psychoanalyst and feminist, said in her theory of abjection – that concerns marginalised people in society – the space of abjection where, in her term “abject” – the marginalised self – is being violently forced to look at its own trauma. The traumatic experience is real; for it will – or in Sarah Kane’s case a real condition/threat – happen to anyone of us. In order to get out of this condition, one – according to Kristeva – has to extract him/herself from the maternal. In this case, the protagonist trying to get out from the madness within, in order to construct a new identity. Christina Sergeant’s direction in the piece hinted on that, especially in getting Kuo Jing Hong out of the performance space, addressing the audience directly, looking and trying to get back into the space many times. But it failed to reach the moment of total extraction, for Kuo Jing Hong – in all her personal trappings as a performer – refused to get out of her own comfort zone, as a dancer and movement artist. This could be clearly seen in her movements, dance-like, filled with aesthetics.
In a nutshell Christina Sergeant’s 4.48 Psychosis could land itself as a powerful piece of theatre, with language serving as the vehicle to bring the audiences to the abject, then to the journey into the space of abjection. Unfortunately it did not reach that state of being, for actor Kuo Jing Hong was struggling with lines, language and physical vocabularies that impeded her journey into the recesses of Sarah Kane’s mind, not allowing her to navigate another mental journey that is totally out of the context of art and theatre.
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