Polish Film Star Magdalena Cielecka’s Stage Performance in 4:48 Psychosis Will Blow You Away


The defining feature of a metaphor is that it’s real — yes or no?” A distraught young woman, asserting her humanity, angrily puts this question to her psychiatrist
in 4:48 Psychosis, and it speaks for this entire
unsettling and beautiful production. The British dramatist Sarah Kane wrote 4:48 Psychosis while she was hospitalized for severe depression. She hanged herself in her room in 1999, at age 28, but her bleak, nonlinear dramas inspired a new generation’s theatrical experiments over the following decade. Adapted for this 2002 staging by Polish director Grzegorz Jarzyna, Kane’s text resounds with the anguished biography behind it even as Jarzyna extends its metaphors. Is this unnamed patient the only one who’s ill, sick with self-loathing and paranoia? Or is the world, with its inhumanity and saccharine reassurances, also stricken?

Jarzyna’s production is stark yet visually rich: a stainless-steel table on wheels, an institutional back wall lined with sinks, and shards of white light all suggest the specter of death. But this staging — which has settled but held up since I first saw it 10 years ago in Warsaw — belongs to Magdalena Cielecka, who gives a breathtaking performance in the central role. Cielecka goes fearlessly into a depth of suffering that can feel painful just to watch. At 4:48‘s sublime peak, she disappears into a storm of numbers projected across her pale body — dosages, ages, dehumanizing digits — which eventually envelop the stage, merging metaphor and reality.