FringeReview UK 2017
Alice Birch’s simultaneous triptych Anatomy of a Suicide directed by Katie Mitchell, features as often in this director a bleached naturalism to the scoured interiors and eventually a reveal, brought by designer Alex Eales who also designed Mitchell’s production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed at the National’s Dorfman. James Farncombe’s bare lighting strips add to this sterile brightness. To July 8th.
Is there a suicide gene? In Anatomy of a Suicide Alice Birch’s simultaneous triptych of three generations of women traumatised and depressed is so formally novel that its psychological heft gets subsumed in the sheer force of three narratives jarring for our attention. Katie Mitchell’s scrupulous direction – for instance she adds dates above each tripartite division of what’s often the same room – is a real help.
There are other elements Mitchell adds to a triple dialogue spread laterally like a musical score horizontally across the playtext. The three main protagonists stand whilst stripped almost bare by their bachelors and other cast members as fashions flutter back across them. It’s an arresting chronological pause, even as it reduces three women to objects frozen in the time of their darkness.
As often in Mitchell, there’s a bleached naturalism to the scoured interiors and eventually a reveal, brought by designer Alex Eales who also designed Mitchell’s production of Sarah Kane’s Cleansed at the National’s Dorfman. James Farncombe’s bare lighting strips add to this sterile brightness. It’s fitting, since Kane as well as Caryl Churchill and Martin Crimp is where Birch’s kinship finds echoes.
That said, there’s nothing like this, not even Albee’s Three Tall Women. The nearest equivalent is another Dorfman production, Ben Power’s adapting three D. H. Lawrence plays to run simultaneously in 2015 under the overarching title Husbands and Sons. Like Power though as an originator, Birch allows us to focus attention on one or other narrative whilst for the most part the others mark time, but gently draw you into flicking your eyes lizard-like across each story, restlessly over two hours. Sometimes there’s a clash and you might miss a few words before switching back. Even Churchill’s increasing conceptual velocity in plays like 2012’s Love and Information boast sequent narratives each director selects. Birch has done something groundbreaking.
The three stories cover a mother, daughter and granddaughter over 1970-90, 1997-2004, and 2033-41. Sometimes each parallel scene speeds up chronology compared to its neighbours, sometimes slows to a nodal crisis.
Hattie Morahan’s Carol inhabits the twenty years 1970-90. She’s just released to her husband John having slashed her wrists, and later has a child Anna. According to Jodie McNeee’s Laura a former fellow pupil who kisses her in 1975 (a route perhaps not taken but echoed in her granddaughter) she’s the ‘still the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen’ the ‘radiant’ schoolgirl everyone looks up to and here she is with husband and child. Her jumping off the school roof is legendary. It’s clear that breaking both ankles raises no query: Carol is from the first wholly alienated. We never learn what drives her depression, her inexplicable marriage to an honourable train driver (this sets up dramatic ironies) and most of all her not wanting to be here.
Morahan’s ‘I have Stayed, I have Stayed – I have Stayed for as long as I can possibly can’ about her daughter is both glaring and hallucinated, as if she’s teleported to the wrong planet, the wrong existence. She’s forced to undergo ECT, those around mostly demean her or try to prevent her as they see it jumping off. For all her conventional regality Carol’s unknowable, her narrative occlusive, even with her vicious sister-in-law Emma whose daughter Daisy prefers Carol because ‘she’s slashed her wrists, smokes like a chimney and looks like a film star, of course she’s her favourite aunt.’
Carol’s daughter Kate O’Flynn’s Anna is the most clearly traumatised; we find her at a hospital undergoing rehab, jacking up on a commune and shacking up with filmmaker Jamie (Gershwyne Eustache Jr.) who jokes to an older Daisy ‘I’m controlling’ but is clearly terrified, the birth of Bonnie doing nothing to allay anyone’s fears. Anna’s brief traversal of seven years to 2004 is the clearest so perhaps least developed.
Finally Adelle Leoncie tracks A&E surgeon Bonnie’s eight years to 2041, punctuated by the warmth of her suitor Jo, Jodie McNee’s appealing almost heartrending fisherwoman who tries not just sexual intimacy but a living one the almost wholly withdrawn Bonnie can’t handle.
One of those signals points a key word as if coincidences of DNA carry verbal echoes. So those like ’radiant’ flourish similar instructions chorused exactly together like ‘sorry’ where Bonnie apologizes for her stressed (perhaps righteous) refusal to see a less prioritised older patient when real emergencies loom. The young grandson will have none of it.
Bonnie’s privacy, her hesitation over selling the family house counterpoints a desire the line should stop with her. She’s not giving up on life, but on giving life. If you think you’ve a family curse, perhaps living in the same house rather rebounds your DNA, which Bonnie only gradually accepts. She adopts a rabbit, the second live one to appear on this stage in as many months.
Morahan’s spellbinding as Carol, her present absence the ghost in the whole machine. O’Flynn’s adroit use of slurred accentuals early on as she struggles back to articulacy is remarkable, her outbursts harrowing. Leonce’s tremulous android cracks at key moments to explode in fury at her inheritance like a pyroplastic flow, and McNee’s Jo, Bonnie’s father Jamie – Eustache Jr. – or Dickon Tyrrell’s urbane surgeon Tim are flattened or alienated. Eustache is ultimately as superfluous as Paul Hilton’s sympathetic John, a man who tenderly realises his inability to fathom wife or daughter, snatching at straws from the torrent of their headlong silence.
Birch though plays with the child motif, a girl multi-roling (Sophia Pettit on this occasion) not only as young Anna – seemingly more sophisticated than her later self – but a perpetual curious motif. Mostly she emerges as a girl Bonnie encounters in several guises, teasing a refusal to go on living or give life. It’s an affirmatory jouissance that twits Bonnie in particular, asking questions she can’t answer.
Mitchell’s clarifying the formality and ritual in Birch’s imagination releases this play’s scale, its pocket epic ambition, picking up on Birch’s textual hints repeated and rendered simultaneously as a visual analogue even if dressing and undressing the key protagonists renders them as thought through by their DNA, rather than thinking. There are disagreeables in Keats’s phrase, that don’t evaporate: Carol’s unknowable depression, the premise of inherited pre-determined trauma. Nevertheless I have to record that coming from a family where one grandmother’s suicide generated suicidal behaviour in her daughter, and similar thoughts in her daughter in turn, Birch has a point. You must see this play; its dark releases a shaft of terrible light.