First staged in 2000 two years after her death, the harrowing vision of Sarah Kanes final play is made more disturbing because it is impossible to separate the suicide of the protagonist from that of the playwright.
Presented as part of Polska! Year (a series of wide-ranging events celebrating Polish culture in Britain), this much-lauded version of 4.48 Psychosis by the cutting-edge TR Warszawa was created in Warsaw in 2002 and came to the Edinburgh Festival in 2008. Performed in Polish with English surtitles, Grzegorz Jarzynas powerful production emphasizes the autobiographical aspects in this drama of lucid despair.
Famously, Kanes extended prose-poem not only has no linear plot, but no stage directions or specified characters, so every staging will be a different experience. While the original Royal Court production used three performers and the one at the Young Vic last year was a solo showcase for Anamaria Marinca, here there is a cast of seven (including two non-speaking actors).
The show starts with a clearly distressed young woman muttering incoherently at the back of the stage, as if trying to exorcize voices in her head. Later we see her interact with a male companion, a female lover, a psychiatrist and a surgeon (as well as mute embodiments of her younger and older self) as they try to help her overcome her suicidal impulses through friendship, sex, pills and lobotomy. But neither the warmth of human contact nor medical treatment is able to pierce through a painfully raw consciousness weighed down with self-hatred, anger, depression and guilt.
Alone and unreachable, in a final act of desperation, she appeals several times directly to the audience for help, stripped to her waist and covered in blood after repeatedly running into the back wall. After that, there is a final brief monologue as we see just her spot-lit head before this too fades into darkness and silence.
Jarzynas production, with its seemingly random countdown giving a sense of inescapable doom, certainly pulls no punches in its depiction of acute suffering. Malgorzata Szczesniaks stark set design features toilets and washbasins at the back, with a transparent Perspex wall moving across stage as the protagonist becomes increasingly trapped in her own anguish.
The projections of Marcin Wiktorowski and lighting of Felice Ross make an almost hallucinogenic impression, while the electronic score of Piotr Dominski and Pawel Mykietyn provides a brooding background and a much-slowed-down version of ‘When I Fall in Love’ takes on a bitterly ironic distortion.
The extraordinarily visceral central performance from Magdalena Cielecka (who starred in last years Oscar-nominated film Katyn) is the focal point of the evening. Fully committed and physically intense, her naked vulnerability lacks the usual protective skin we need for survival as she convinces us that this is a woman who seems to have taken all the darkness of the world into her, as she heads towards the exit. And with no curtain call at the end, the audience is left with no comforting return to normality.