I guess it is possible to unanimously imagine the history of music theatre as the history of a relationship: the one between music and theatre; and depending on the various kinds of relationships cultural contexts have generated, different musico-theatrical forms have come to life. As of a few weeks ago however, I have been under the impression that a very fresh, possibly new relationship has been proposed: a tridimensional one, in which the pace of musical rhythm determines the words’ intentions, the literal text is seen but not heard, and the drama emerges from the combination of music and reading rather than music and action. I witnessed this at Philip Venables’ 4.48 Psychosis, a new opera based on Sarah Kane’s play of the same title, which has recently premiered at Lyric Hammersmith.
Here is the astute musico-theatrical mechanism I am referring to: imagine two characters on stage, face-to-face as if they were conversing; they do not actually speak or mouth their lines, but mostly stand still; their words are visually projected above them, on the wall of the room constituting the set; two percussionists, respectively positioned on stage left and stage right, above the set, articulate bass drum rhythms in perfect synchronisation with the projected texts. Their lines would recall a musical conversation made of rhythms, which retain all those nuances that are typical of speech. The percussive lines did not accompany the words, but provided them with significance and emphasis.
Such a musico-theatrical layout does not happen, of course, during the entire opera, but is solely confined to those dramatic passages in which the main character converses with her doctor. It is in these precise passages that 4.48 Psychosis has somehow transferred the action: this latter example, in fact, would not be an on-stage representation the spectators passively experience, but it would rely on the twofold contemplation of the inseparable relationship between the written text and percussion phrases; a contemplation that, through the reading and the text-sound association, invites the audience to actively establish musico-theatrical links.
At the same time, such a shift of action moves away from the on-stage occurrences (not much happens ‘on’-stage, in fact), and extends across the set as well as the musicians’ space. In this sense the musico-theatrical action, we could say, does not show an on-stage representation, but rather a trans-stage one. As Philip Venables himself says, ‘bringing the spoken word and the visual, printed word into combination with song and text is for me a very strong recipe’1; yet the central point, in these passages from 4.48 Psychosis, is that the combination Venables refers to nearly transcends what we can conventionally call action. His is a different kind of action, one that genuinely explores musico-theatrical possibilities.
His wish was ‘to re-create a kind of polyphony of inner voices’2, and this is certainly achieved. However, the intellectually active role of the spectators makes such inner voices not only those of the opera’s character(s), but also their own, elaborating interpretations of the projected words, which were unsaid by the mouth, but spoken by the drums. Sarah Kane’s text, after all, operates in a quasi-percussive way: her sharp and rough lines, without precise characters, indeed recall the sharpness and brutality of percussion. And in this sense it is appropriate to glimpse a musical, rhythmic parallelism between Kane’s work and Venables’ composition. In fact, as Cristina Delgado-Garcia suggests, ‘like a musical piece, the text of 4.48 Psychosis invites us not to understand the external reality of its speakers, but to feel the pulse of images, timbres, rhythms, patterns’3. Kane’s sounds, exactly like Venables’ speaking percussion, are intelligible, human pulses. She recalls them herself in her text: ‘At 4.48 / when depression visits / I shall hang myself / to the sound of my lover’s breathing’4.
1 Philip Venables, as quoted in: Rachel Beaumont, ‘Listen: Philip Venables on Sarah Kane’s 4.48 Psychosis: Music on the Page’, Royal Opera House website, News, <http://www.roh.org.uk/news/listen-philip-venables-on-sarah-kanes-4-48-psychosis-music-on-the-page> (accessed 6 June 2016).
3 Cristina Delgado-Garcia, ‘Why Sarah Kane’s play 4.48 Psychosis is the perfect inspiration for an opera’, Royal Opera House website, News, <http://www.roh.org.uk/news/listen-philip-venables-on-sarah-kanes-4-48-psychosis-music-on- the-page> (accessed 7 June 2016).
Photograph: Colin Hovde