Leah Sidi, Sarah Kane’s Theatre of Psychic Life

Leah Sidi, Sarah Kane's Theatre of Psychic Life: Theatre, Thought and Mental Suffering, (Bloomsbury Methuen Drama, London, 2023). 211 pp. £85.00 Hb. £76.50 E-book. £76.50 Pdf. ISBN: 9781350283121

Leah Sidi’s Sarah Kane’s Theatre of Psychic Life: Theatre, Thought, and Mental Suffering offers a full-length study of Kane’s plays, both written during the 1990s. Sarah Kane is a British playwright who suffered from mental illness and committed suicide at the age of 28 in 1999. Many consider her work in the context of post-dramatic theatre and In-Yer-Face Theatre. Graham Saunders, Kane’s biographer, published a number of books on her life and work. His publications as an author include Love Me or Kill Me: Sarah Kane and the Theatre of Extremes in 2002, About Kane: The Playwright and the Work in 2009, and Sarah Kane in Context in 2010 (as an editor). While Saunders’s work offers a reference to Kane’s work, Leah Sidi 2023 moves the discussion forward and focuses critically on Kane’s plays, examining her dramatic experimentation and the ways in which she could dramatise the experience of inner psychic life. Sidi indicates that Sarah Kane’s Theatre of Psychic Life is “a book about mental distress and Sarah Kane’s theatre.” (Sidi, 2023:1), it addresses the intersection between theatre and psychiatric discourse in the UK during the 1990s.

In her survey, Sidi covers Kane’s major works, which include Blasted (1995), Phaedra’s Love (1996), Cleansed (1998), Crave (1998), and 4:48 Psychosis (1999). Sidi approaches Kane’s theatre from the perspective of Kane’s experience as an expert in both theatre and mental illness. In this, Sidi explains that Kane’s theatre is not an autobiographical work but rather informed by her experience of illness as well as theatre forms and the culture and political context of her time in the nineties. To understand the connection between Kane’s theatre and their cultural discourse narrative, Sidi offers a critical examination of the mental health system, policy, and care in community plays in the 1990s. Sidi utilises a cultural and historical lens to excavate Kane’s engagement with mental illness. Arguing that Kane wrote her plays in the period of the 1990s when the mental health system faced profound changes in terms of care and delivery, Sidi indicates that Kane experienced the mental health system as a playwright and a patient. As part of her theoretical and historical frame, Sidi uses Kane’s Phaedra’s Love as a parody of the issue of community care and as a political play of Kane’s work.

Sidi organises her analysis by themes instead of the chronological order of the plays. The five chapters discuss trauma from sexual abuse, psychosis, mental collapse, and desire and despair. Sidi dedicated the chapters of the book to moving from external representation to focusing on the internal depiction of psychic life on stage. In chapter one, she proposes to use the term ‘dramaturgy of psychic life’ to understand the relation between Kane’s drama and psychic life. Using the tool of theatre ‘experientialism’ and D. W. Winnicott’s psychoanalysis theories as a starting point for her analysis, Sidi explains her choice of the terms ‘psychic pain’ and ‘psyche’ to describe the interior theatrical experience that Kane’s plays provide to the audience. Sidi in chapter two moves to examine the internal collapse and how Kane incorporates it into the structure of her play Blasted. Utilising a feminist approach and trauma structure, Sidi argues the dramaturgy of Blasted embodies spatially a traumatised mind after abuse.

In Kane’s last three works, Kane tends to be more experimental in form, and her subject matter revolves around the inner mental space. Sidi starts gradually to excavate the internal reality of characters with Cleansed in chapter three. Drawing on the tradition of expressionist theatre, and more specifically Antonin Artaud, Georg Büchner, and August Strindberg, Sidi detects Kane’s style and her tendency to depict elements of the psychotic experience on stage. Utilising a cognitive neuroscience perspective, Sidi argues that in Cleansed, Kane’s style shows a movement to a more interior dramatic universe but is not attributed to a particular character. Sidi indicates that by this movement to the inner mind, Kane’s drama crates an analogous experience of the inner crisis for the audience through the sharing of elements of psychotic breakdown with them.

Since Kane’s last two plays tend to be more abstract and do not have an identifiable character but rather voices, Sidi’s approach in concluding her analysis in the last two chapters with them seems reasonable, especially given her aims of exploring the psychic life from external structural representation to the depiction of fragmented mind. Sidi views Crave and 4.48 Psychosis as more developed plays in terms of the depiction of psychic life. In Chapter 4, an examination of the intersection between a mind in crisis and the theatrical space is offered through the analysis of 4.48 Psychosis. Sidi argues in this play that Kane offered the audience an experiential space of mental suffering. Through examining theatrical space, Sidi concludes that Kane collapses the boundary between the audience and the dramatic space.

The fifth and final chapter focuses on the notion of desire in Crave and 4.48 Psychosis. In this chapter, Sidi went even further to think of what Kane’s last two plays demand from the spectator beyond the theatrical experience of psychic life. In this way, Sidi claims that Kane’s theatre moves even beyond representation and engagement of the audience to think about the contradiction of the complexity of the human psyche since Crave and 4.48 Psychosis offer both suicidal despair and desire and both represent desire in a queer landscape, which means that gender identities become fluid in the queering of desire and the desired other.

Sarah Kane’s Theatre of Psychic Life is a book about the private, the historical, the social, and the political. Adapting a style of moving from a political and exterior depiction of psychic life, such as in Phaedra’s Love and Blasted, to a more interior and personal one, such as in Crave and 4.48 Psychosis, Sidi provides a comprehensive study of Kane’s drama and mental illness. Sidi, in her book, takes the discourse of mental illness and community care in the 1990s as communicable discourse through theatrical special representation. The reading of Kane’s theatre as a theatre of psychic life offers a dramatic approach that demands the audience's full engagement. Leah Sidi’s Sarah Kane’s Theatre of Psychic Life: Theatre, Thought, and Mental Suffering offers a comprehensive introduction to Kane’s theatre and the depiction of the experience of mental illness and will be a valuable source for students and academicians in the field of theatre as well as those in medical humanities studies.

Wansah AlShammari, University of Hail

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