Somewhere between a dream, a nightmare, an art installation and a melodrama, ‘Anatomy of a Suicide’ is the work of the auteur director Katie Mitchell writ large.
But actually it’s very much a coming of age for its author, the playwright Alice Birch. In the past, Birch – writer of the hit indie film ‘Lady Macbeth’ – has merely been credited with the text of Mitchell’s projects, but ‘Anatomy of a Suicide’, and its beguiling, disorientating, ambitious structure, is all the author’s own (even if it’s difficult to imagine another director actually realising it).
‘Anatomy of a Suicide’ is essentially three dramas set in different time periods, all performed on stage at the same time. It concerns a trio of women: Carol (Hattie Morahan) in the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, Anna (Kate O’Flynn) in the ’90s and ’00s, and Bonnie (Adelle Leonce) in the 2030s. It becomes apparent soon enough that this is a dynasty: Anna is Carol’s daughter, and Bonnie is Anna’s.
Suicide, unsurprisingly, looms large: in the very first scene, Morahan’s polite, ethereal Carol apologises to her feeble husband John (Paul Hilton) for having earlier slit her wrists, unconvincingly suggesting ‘it was an accident’. In the hands of the reliably great Morahan, there is something ghostly about Carol, a woman whose life seems wholly defined by her desire to end it. There are hints at why, but ultimately all we really know is that she doesn’t want to live, and that her only reason for remaining is her daughter. Her actions resonate through the years and literally ripple across the stage, as O’Flynn’s funny, tragic, out-of-control adult Anna and Leonce’s sullen, withdrawn Bonnie go about lives defined by the actions of past generations.
It is a difficult play to talk about without spoilering, because the three timelines unfold simultaneously, meaning the most significant actions Carol and Anna take only happen at the very end. But Birch has crafted a rich, haunting, technically dazzling script, in which the women cast eerie shadows through time, sometimes verbally – a repeated motif is somebody simply repeating the same word or name to shut down conversation – or thematically. It is as much a play about motherhood as suicide: Birch is fascinated by the power of motherly love and its function as a tether to the world, but remains studious ambivalent about it.
It’s Mitchell’s production – and her three extraordinary leads – that allows Birch’s ambition to be realised. Melanie Wilson’s sometimes sinister, sometime pulsating sound design is part of it (one of the most haunting moments in when, in no obvious timeline, PJ Harvey’s ominous ‘I Think I’m a Mother’ crackles out of a speaker). But Mitchell’s deftness at directing bodies is the key. She creates a sensuous, unsettling blur of movement and story. There is almost too much to take in: visually, verbally, technically, narratively. But that’s part of its power: it is as ritualistic as it is cerebral. It is gut-level, subliminal: a depiction of tragedy as a disease that swims silently through the bloodstream.