When you think about all the things you’ve inherited from your mother, what springs to mind? A particular physical resemblance perhaps; the colour of her hair, the shape of your nose or your height. Maybe you have characteristics of her personality; a fiery temper, a quick wit or a placid demeanour. Some will receive a troublesome genetic legacy that passes through the maternal chromosomes – male baldness perhaps – but one of the things you rarely imagine your mother could give you was a predisposition to suicide.
Alice Birch’s new play, premiering at the Royal Court, considers just that possibility in the story of three generations of the same family – grandmother, mother and granddaughter – who at a relatively young age consider ending their lives, and the effect this subsequently has on the child they leave behind. Anatomy of a Suicide may not be cheery viewing, and its central premise about the genetic transmission of trauma is scientifically dubious, but Birch’s play is one of the most innovative and exciting pieces of theatre in 2017.
Carol, Anna and Bonnie never properly know each other, yet they are as closely related as it’s possible to be, direct descendants in fact. Each woman’s story is presented simultaneously, and though occurring decades apart, overlap and resonate in what is an ambitiously conceived and carefully controlled narrative. Its visual style is initially overwhelming and trying to concentrate on what seems like three separate stories is distracting, you’re always more involved with one than any other, but give yourself time to adjust to the style and you’re soon engrossed.
The play opens in the 1970s in the aftermath of Carol’s first suicide attempt as she apologises profusely to her bewildered husband while claiming the ingestion of so many pills and slitting her wrists was an accident. Unable to bear the idea of living, Carol is advised to have a child to give her stability and meaning, but will it only delay the inevitable? In the 1990s Anna is a mess, taking drugs regularly and like Carol before her, entirely lost in the world she inhabits. At her lowest point Anna meets Jamie and moves back to her childhood home to start a family, but sinks into a postnatal depression that seems unshakeable. Finally, in the 2030s doctor Bonnie is isolated and troubled by the demands of her job, until she too is drawn to the family home seeking some kind of escape from her loneliness and connection to the past which she cannot control.
One of the most impressive elements of this story is how clearly Birch must have visualised it as she wrote, in order to carefully construct how each story would be unveiled and where particular phrases or experiences would echo across the stage. The technical aspects of playwrighting are commonly underestimated as an art form, and although it is similar to novel writing in giving first importance to the creation of interesting characters and story, a playwright must also have some concept of how their work will look and flow in physical form.
A director will get the play on its feet, but they need strong structures and guidance from the written text, and here the harmonious partnership of Birch and Katie Mitchell brings meaning and credibility to the interaction between the three stories, each getting their own time to develop and create impact, while sitting together as a tightly paced thematic unit. You never get the sense that these three stories are happening in isolation, that they are independent of what’s happening in the scenario next door, and much of that is down to the clarity of Birch’s writing, while Mitchell utilises the small Royal Court space to highlight the similarities between them even though each story occurs in its own confined physical location and separate decade.
Birch’s play is all about women and the outcome of societal pressures to live a certain way, particularly when subverting their own happiness to expectations of motherhood and duty, a theme also examined in the recent film Lady Macbeth which she also penned. Although secondary characters exist in each of three scenarios, they are sketchily drawn in comparison with the three leads suggesting the somewhat muffled engagement each woman has with the world, barely registering anyone else’s existence.
In a two hour show without interval and all three women on stage almost throughout, Mitchell controls the complicated staging extremely well and the pace never slackens. Each story unfolds at different rates with speedy and slow burning elements that keep the audience invested in each while moving between the eras seamlessly. At times conversations from two time periods are overlaid so particular words are said at the same time, or the same phrase is repeated in a different way highlighting the connection between these women. Sometimes, we move rapidly between stories with only a line or two in each decade, while at other times one woman comes more strongly into focus as the key moments in her life are played out uninterrupted. As I mentioned above, for this unusual approach to work successfully, both Birch and Mitchell had to have a strong grasp of the effect they wanted to create and it is this obvious clarity of vision that makes Anatomy of a Suicide so narratively and technically satisfying.
Creating three characters with similar but differently troubled experiences, across three decades while keeping the audience invested in all of them is no mean feat. Hattie Morahan is simply outstanding as Carol, a woman who decides quite rationally that she just cannot go on. Morahan is calm and cool throughout, never resorting to histrionics or overplaying the “woe is me” sentiment, yet manages to convey the deepest struggle and pain of a woman who has no desire to fight for any kind of life. Carol is entirely driven by the need to end her life, and while she conscientiously lives on for the sake of her young daughter, it’s clear in Morahan’s moving and subtly substantial performance that each moment of living is agony to her, and as the years go by her struggle pulls her further and further away from reality.
Fresh from her critically acclaimed role in The Glass Menagerie, Kate O’Flynn plays Carol’s grown-up daughter Anna sent into a torrent of drugs and alcohol abuse to obliterate the events of her childhood. Yet, Anna’s story seems to go in the opposite direction, away from her trauma and towards a more redemptive future as she finds love and family security after addressing her problems. O’Flynn takes Anna from spiralling addiction to the normality of a warm family life, capturing the humour and openness of her character, but shows her inability to deal with sudden knocks that send her hurtling unexpectedly towards her own moment of decision.
Initially with so much to pull the audience into the experiences of Carol and Anna, Bonnie’s much more gently paced story feels almost on the side-lines, but this is purposeful and Birch balances this later in the show when Bonnie’s story is given its place in the light of what we then know about her relatives. With such a family legacy, Bonnie is afraid to feel anything, fearing the consequences of what she sees as an inevitable pull towards the end. Adelle Leonce gives a wonderfully contained performance as Bonnie, who is also somehow distanced from the life she is leading, a figure not in control of her own destiny, trying to limit the knock-on effect for others.
And while the secondary characters have less time to shine, Paul Hilton is excellent as Carol’s exasperated husband, and in the neighbouring scenario, as Anna’s caring father. Birch’s exploration of how lives can be shaped by forces beyond individual control is replicated in the doll-like costume changes as each woman is dressed on-stage by external hands between scenes, which is an integral part of this play’s impact.
Whether or not you believe that trauma can be inherited as easily as the family home that traps these women, Anatomy of a Suicide is a fascinating and emotive experience. Watching three powerful stories unfold side-by-side is unlike almost anything else you’ve seen – although the staging of multiple perspectives has tones of the National’s current production of Part 1 of Angels in America except the action occurs at the same time as well. With three incredibly strong central performances, and a brave approach to a difficult subject, Anatomy of a Suicide reveals how powerfully a single act can reverberate across the decades, shaping the lives of those yet to exist.
Anatomy of a Suicide is at the Royal Court until 8th July. Tickets start at £12. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1.