Alice Birch writes likes she’s composing. Her scripts are scattered with full stops for pauses and even lines in square brackets to indicate the unspoken thought processes of her characters. It’s masterful and almost as beautiful on the page as it is to watch.
In Anatomy of a Suicide, she’s staged intertextuality within a single text. Or, she’s written three iterations of a tune that each come into greater relief as our attention flickers between the three sections of players. Alex Eales has designed his space as a triptych in which each picture is identical. Three doors on stage for three women’s lives. The pleasure lies in noticing the similarities and the differences between their stories. That’s intensified by the thread that these women are related so it feels like any similarities between their lives are fated; inherited. Or are they? Are the parallels merely coincidental; circumstantial? How have their partners, doctors, changes in mental health treatment and sexuality helped or hindered them?
It’s this conceit that keeps me riveted as these women’s lives unfurl. Their perspectives root the story amidst the chaos of their lives. We gather glimmers of ulterior ways of perceiving them but mostly we see these women as they see themselves. This is artfully pictured in the neatly choreographed scene changes. The men, relations and friends of our core trio criss-cross around the set to produce a dance of costume and set changes. In open white light these have swift and impressive accuracy. The women are our anchor even as their lives break and fix and break again. The style of it all is transfixing. And the repetitions continue in and across time through individual words and themes: hospitals, parties, children, names, yes, no.
Are you happy? This play asks. Once from the precocious voice of a young girl at her birthday party. But it’s implicit continually. Are you happy? Are you happy? Are you happy?
Hattie Morahan’s character Carol is told by that same little girl that she personifies tragedy. She beautifully embodies the emptiness this lonely woman feels and the illness of her mind that makes every breath and every day a struggle beneath a haze of ruby-red-coat glamour, a loving husband and elegant cigarette smoke. Anatomy of a Suicide dissects what it might mean for a family to inherit tragedy in mind and experience. It looks at how an initial trauma echoes through the generations from Carol as depression seeps from mother to daughter to daughter.
It’s difficult and thrilling – all at once – to be carried through these three women’s lives at different times simultaneously. Each story exists alone in time. But each in the theatre is dependent on the emotional and musical rhythm of the others. You catch the final word of a conversation you’ve missed and wish you could press pause on a third of the stage, rewind and take everything in. The timbre of one voice attracts you for a little while before you’re distracted by an interaction from another time. The scripting and direction, though, are clever. Katie Mitchell know the elements the audience must catch hold of; when one line of the music needs to star and its other sections accompany. Whatever you miss in the experience of watching this play you’re certain you’ve caught the through-line.
The heartbreak of this production is not just the sad confessions of women struggling with depression, addiction and solitude. It’s that because of those things a granddaughter shares a stage with a grandmother she never met. A grown child shares theatrical time with the mother she never knew as an adult. Every minute I wanted the laws of time to break and for each of them to turn and be with each other.
A special note must go to Kate O’Flynn’s fab and hilarious opening turn as Anna, alongside Peter Hobday, trashed at the hospital. Sophie Pettit is sweet and very bold as the three children. The cast is strong across the board coming together as a company to make the complexity of speeches interlocking and moments of unison seem effortless. Alice Birch has created an impressively cohesive piece of theatre from the sprawling lives of flawed and hurting women.
Anatomy of a Suicide is at the until 8 July.