Windmills of Your Mind
Evanna Ramly 
Behind the scenes of 4.48 Psychosis

Clinical depression is a dark subject that doesn’t easily lend itself to being filmed or staged. Yet, there is a certain attraction about dramatizing depression, and many writers have presented their take on tormented individuals.

One of the more well-known works on the subject is 4.48 Psychosis, written by English playwright Sarah Kane, who herself suffered from severe clinical depression. The play was written in 1999, shortly before she committed suicide, and was first staged a year later. 

Director Kelvin Wong first came across 4.48 Psychosis in a 2006 local production. Directed by Gavin Yap, it starred Susan Lankester, the late Samantha Schubert and Malik Taufiq.

“I found the layout of the text to be quite reflective of someone who might be tormented in his or her mind and I speak from my personal experience,” says Wong, who does not suffer from clinical depression but had, in the past, instances during which he questioned a lot of things. “I feel the issue of clinical depression has popped up again in social media and this play has become an important story of a very specific take of an individual who goes through depression.”

Wong was drawn to the way the non-linear play was written, as well as the subject matter at hand. “I also find that it’s very personal to us as a production team – as people living in the 21st century – and I am using this opportunity to create a theatrical experience where audiences are able to get up close and into the mind of a person and then perhaps, come out of the theatre with greater empathy. Every one of us has our own struggles that we go through, which we sometimes take for granted when we come into everyday situations with people.”

These days we are surrounded by ideas: of celebrity, happiness and the ultimate life, says Wong. “We get all these shown to us on Facebook whenever we turn on our phones, whenever we browse magazines and TV channels, but then what we often miss is the fact that each of us has a part that is doubtful, anxious, fearful and insecure. All these – if we don’t look into it enough and actually confront or come to terms with them – can be detrimental.”

What he saw on stage 11 years ago was a very bleak, dark, cynical approach to depression. “In the first five minutes, it was all “Die! Die! Die! I want to die” and it was the same throughout the entire show,” he recalls. “I’ve seen similar productions take on the play like this – shouty, screamy, just no hope from the start until the end.”

While he acknowledges how directors might choose that to be a theatrical experience in itself, Wong opts instead for a trippier, more electric and psychedelic lens. “We explore where the mind can possibly go,” he shares. “In that sense, it’s been fun, going from different worlds to the next.

“From visions of balloons to a pseudo talk show, the mind would then bring the protagonist to a place where she has no choice but to confront someone whom she is in love with, and we then segue way to another trippy scene where she sees herself in an ideal place with that particular person,” he reveals. “All this for me as a director was missing from the text. I come in from an imaginative point of view to actually marry both.”

(L-R) Chua, Wong and Phraveen hope to kickstart greater discussion on mental health

According to Wong, 4.48 Psychosis was written as a final note before Kane committed suicide. “She never got to see it performed, so this is a very personal piece to the protagonist,” he continues. “It’s not a general overview in terms of what clinical depression is; this is a personalised, specific journey of someone who goes through clinical depression that has been interpreted from another lens. We cannot say that everyone who goes through this will go through the very same thing.”

That said, the play offers a fascinating sojourn in itself. “We learn that there are things she latches on. She mentions light a lot, she has images of cockroaches, and of this ideal person she thinks is hurting her. Later she mentions to her psychiatrist that he is her last hope,” he elaborates.

“It’s a very human experience but also a specific one. Imagine your mind is in an open field and all of a sudden there are roses coming from the sky followed by people who are singing as part of a musical.”

Wong believes the approach is particularly important in addressing the fact that there is no black and white when it comes to depression. There are all forms of depression, and people go on such different journeys that some don’t even realise what they’re going through.

“I feel that depression is something people might not necessarily immediately come to terms with. They might think they’re just having a bad day for the past few weeks and will insist it’s not depression. That word itself comes with a certain stigma,” he laments.

“It’s also important to note that just because you present only eight out of 10 symptoms, it doesn’t mean you don’t have depression. There are some who might show only one sign,” he explains. “Clinical depression is a personalised phase that people go through – we’re talking circumstances, genetics, hormones, perceptions; there are so many factors.”

He feels there is only one commonality that people with depression share: “I don’t think it’s a pleasant thing to go through.”

Wong’s production stars Claudia Low, Phraveen Arikiah, Alex Chua and Andrew Wood. Low plays the protagonist, while the rest of the cast take on multiple roles, travelling back and forth between reality and what’s in her head.

Chua plays the protagonist’s closest friend, who only wants the best for her but has no idea how to ease her pain. “It’s a very frustrating and stressful place to be,” he says. “Sometimes almost as breaking to the person who’s helping as it is to the person who’s being helped.”

He hopes to bring a spontaneity and impulsiveness to the acting that will allow him to be an instrument to tell the story. “Nothing matters more than the story itself.”

Phraveen points out that the characters are not just voices but embody different aspects of the protagonist’s battle. “She can’t come to terms with it so at each point we personify different checkpoints in her journey.”

“For me, it’s about getting people to talk,” he enthuses. “The thing about depression is that it’s very real and closer to most of us than we think but people don’t talk about it. We see it as an untouchable subject that we should not delve into.”

Wong likes the way the play’s non-linear approach reminds audiences of life’s unpredictability and how it informs choices. “You might think you know this person’s world then you go into it and 10 minutes in you either get super-frustrated or you allow yourself to wait and see what happens next.

“This is different from a realistic play where, in the first 10 minutes, you have a clear idea in terms of what this world is and everything that happens will take place within this world, whereas here we shift worlds and the only thing that’s constant is the protagonist. That’s how you should take life – as it comes, even if it’s certainly not easy.”

This article first appeared in Focus Malaysia Issue 257.