Following its unveiling at this address in 2016 , Philip Venables’ setting of Sarah Kane’s final play 4.48 Psychosis garnered major awards from UK Theatre and the Royal Philharmonic Society, as well as nominations from the South Bank Awards and the Oliviers. On its first revival the piece and its performance seem, if anything, even stronger than before.
Venables is the first composer to set Kane’s work to music and his ability to find the right notes to match a text many of his colleagues would have deemed impossibly daunting feels unerring.
Opera has always shown a capacity for encompassing emotional extremity. Mental illness is scarcely a new subject for the form, but never before has it been tackled with such insight and empathy as here. The bleakest despair, the numbness of self-hatred, even moments of the most painful humour, all find expression in Venables’ extraordinarily accomplished and imaginative writing.
Using a combination of speech and song, plus a highly idiosyncratic way of setting words projected on a screen as a no-holds-barred battle between two percussionists – members of the brilliant contemporary music ensemble Chroma, who deliver the score in virtuoso fashion under conductor Richard Baker – Venables follows in the tradition of great composers who discover a way of making a fine text even more eloquent than it already is.
Ted Huffman’s staging once again succeeds in visualising this intense process of internal psychological scrutiny, while an ensemble cast of six female singers play their individual parts with a sense of identification as harrowing as it is truthful.
Invidious though it is to pick out individuals in this instance, the roles allotted to soprano Gweneth-Ann Rand and to mezzo Lucy Schaufer could not have fallen into more gifted hands; but their four colleagues do Kane and Venables proud, too.