Tag Archives: Kate O’Flynn

Anatomy of a Suicide – Royal Court

Anatomy of a Suicide - Royal Court

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.

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The Glass Menagerie – Duke of York’s Theatre

glass-menagerie

Absence and disappointment fill Tennessee Williams’s first big successful play The Glass Menagerie, but its appeal rests in the charm of its small family, one room set-up that continues to feel relevant and troubling today. Yet it’s been quite some time since a production has reached the West End despite a well-received version at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2015; A Streetcar Named Desire and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof come round fairly often, and we even had a rather flat production of In the Bar of the Tokyo Hotel last year at the Charing Cross Theatre, but the complexities of Williams’s 1944 play with its hyper-realised memory-format make it difficult to do well.

The 2013 American Repertory Theatre production of this play has finally made it to London, where it has already received stellar reviews to add to its Tony nominations from Broadway. And all of them are entirely deserved in a production that showcases the complexities of family relationships and pointedly reveals the inner-life of its characters. The one thing you’ll hear over and over again about this play is that it is Williams’s most autobiographical work but how much he has drawn from his own life and experiences in the several years it took to compose this play are debatable, but that is not all there is to say about this remarkable drama.

Set in the Wingfield’s small St Louis flat in an unremarkable tenant block, the narrator Tom lives with his mother and sister in genteel poverty. Tom works at the local shoe warehouse and dreams of freedom from the burden of providing for his family, a burden which takes him to ‘the movies’ every night to escape into the adventure of the silver screen. Matriarch Amanda has cared for her, now adult, children since her husband abandoned them many years before and dreams of receiving a “gentlemen caller” to marry her painfully shy and slightly disabled daughter Laura. Obsessed with her own past glories as a younger woman, Amanda nags and harries Tom until he finally agrees to bring home a friend from work, a night that changes everything.

Where Williams excels as a dramatist is his ability to show an audience what’s going on under the skin of his characters even when their surface demeanour is calm, poised and seemingly repressed. Particularly drawn to people who aspire to a type of gentility they lack or have since lost, Williams characters often burn with an interior passion for something or someone that can never be realised, or if it is will be a fleeting pleasure rather than the much needed change of life. We see this in Blanche who yearns for the respectability of marriage and stability but cannot fight her baser attractions to virile younger men, and we see it in Maggie who tries to be a dutiful daughter-in-law and wife but cannot contain her unrequited passion for her husband and his protection from the machinations of his family.

In The Glass Menagerie, and so beautifully realised in this production, the three primary characters struggle in exactly the same way, having to present one face to the world, to show acceptance and duty, while inside their fantasies of escape and freedom fight to emerge. The dramatic frame is set by Tom who speaks directly to the audience at the beginning from some future time, long after the events the play recounts. These are his memories and ones we are asked not to trust, as they are filled with illusion and his years of regret. Tom (which happens to be Williams’s real name) is then partly an unreliable narrator but also someone we come to view quite differently as events play out.

Initially he seems a steady, reliable young man, worn down by the drudgery of his work who seeks solace for his sensitive soul in writing poetry and going to the cinema. But actor Michael Esper slowly reveals the complexities under the surface, a sense of frustration with his overbearing mother and her constant interference, a rage against the world for forcing him into a life he didn’t want and, somewhat surprisingly, a secret drive to abandon them entirely. It is in the second act that an unexpected darkness emerges in Tom as he fights for his own survival, and in Esper’s performance you get clever hints that Tom is not all he seems, that ‘the movies’ may not be what we think and his interest in Jim the “gentleman caller” is something less wholesome than his family believes.

Similarly sister Laura, played by Kate O’Flynn is a delicate, broken creature, drummed into shyness and a sense of inferiority by the demands of her mother. Obsessed with caring for her collection of glass ornaments, represented here as only one small glass unicorn, Laura we learn has lived a life unfulfilled by work or love, clinging only to the constancy of her fragile collection. And while away from her mother we see her care for her brother’s welfare, it is with the arrival of Jim that O’Flynn allows Laura’s true character to burst into life, as she warms to the gentleness of his treatment, becoming talkative and momentarily happy in his presence. We see that despite her reticence she yearns for the kind of love her mother dreams of for her, something she has always convinced herself was not possible for someone like her. And the audience truly feels for her as the play reaches its conclusion.

In many ways, Amanda is the most complicated role of them all and Cherry Jones’s Tony-nominated performance is a masterclass in Williams’s pushy Southern women. Disguised as a protective instinct, to save her children from vice, Amanda is concerned that the world should see her as a decent, dignified woman. Like her children she has no current friends to speak of, but she revels in memories of her past that seem as real to her in Jones’s performance, as the present day. We never know really what happened with her husband and there are some hints that he was unsuitable, but she focuses on the many offers and admirers she once had, and the dreamlike reality of that earlier happier time. Amanda nags and berates her children, interferes in their business and talks excessively at people, so the audience understands Tom’s need to escape entirely. Yet, Jones still makes her sympathetic, affected by the absence of her husband and the disappointment of a life that promised so much and delivered so little.

Although a relatively small role Jim played by Brian J. Smith, the infamous “gentleman caller” is a sensitive young man who arrives at the Wingfield’s with no expectation of why he’s really there. Williams also gives him a similar sense of internal and external battle as he is drawn to Laura’s sadness and tries to gently nurture her confidence. Smith dominates the few scenes he’s in, as a breath of fresh air that blows through the Wingfield house bringing momentary hope and happiness to everyone inside, which serves to makes the conclusion only feel more emotive.

John Tiffany directs with a deep understanding of the layers in Williams’s play, while cleverly mixing a sense of encroaching reality with the ephemeral nature of memory. Natasha Katz’s lighting design adds to the dreamlike quality of the production and the slightly haunting nature of Tom’s few narrative moments. Bob Crowley’s layers of hexagonal set pitch the three sections slightly out of line with each other, which beautifully reflects how little the three protagonists understand each other, while the whole is cut into by a lightning bolt-shaped fire escape that pierces the Wingfield’s flat and underlines Tom’s concluding speech.

The flat is surrounded by a vast black lagoon which is occasionally lit like stars in moments of hope but seeks to demonstrate the endless emptiness that surrounds all of them, like an island forever cut-off from the outside world. While it works brilliantly as metaphor, it does lose the sense of crowding and claustrophobia that tenement-living induces and is also vital to the play’s subtext. There is little sense of being surrounded by other lives here which is a shame, and the National’s recent take on The Deep Blue Sea had a more suitable solution to the block housing problem.

Nonetheless, this is a masterfully charged production of Williams’s early play, and while the style takes a little while to get used to, it soon draws you into the inner-lives of its lonely protagonists. And while in one sense it is a tiny domestic drama that affects only the four characters we see, it has a universality that is quite affecting. Everyone has lost or never achieved something they wanted, whether it is love, recognition or freedom, and Williams’s creations represent something we can all recognise. The power of this play’s characters, and the American Repertory Theatre’s excellent production, is that all of them are fragile creatures, a glass menagerie that we watch shatter in the hands of the playwright.

The Glass Menagerie is at the Duke of York’s Theatre until 29 April. Tickets start at £20 but do note ATG booking fees. Day seats are available from £15 at the box office. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1


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