It is June 2017 and I have just broken up with my girlfriend. I have tickets to see Anatomy of a Suicide but I decide, from the title, that it would be too heavy for my raw emotions. My girlfriend goes to see it and calls me to talk about it. She says it is wonderful. We talk about plays like we used to, then end up arguing again. Two weeks later, I find myself at the Royal Court, alone. I do not cry. I feel hollowed out, numb. Of all the characters, I am most drawn to Bonnie, a character so closed off by pain that she cannot bear to let others come close to knowing her. Do I have a problem with intimacy? I wonder, relationship recriminations ringing in my ears.
Anatomy of a Suicide is about the impact of suicide upon three generations of women in the same family. But it is about so much more than that, the lives of Carol, Anna, and Bonnie’s unfurling simultaneously in a tapestry of pain. I have seen Katie Mitchell’s production of Anatomy four times: that first time at the Royal Court, twice as a recording at V&A National Video Archive of Performance, and finally, translated into German at the Schauspielhaus in Hamburg. Anatomy of a Suicide has become one of the case studies for my PhD on feminist theatre and form and, as a result, I have spent three years with it lodged in my brain. This process of slow criticism is very different from a normal theatre review, which has both the pressure of time to decide what you think to meet a deadline and the pressure of a word count that never feels like enough. Instead, I have the time and space to take a performance apart to see how it works. Yet it still feels like a riddle that I am only just beginning to figure out.
Although many reviews of the Royal Court production pronounced Anatomy of a Suicide ‘clinical’, Alice Birch’s writing manages to exact an emotional and intellectual response. Katie Mitchell’s production hones this paradoxical combination of distance and intimacy, numbness and rawness. Watching the play, whether onstage or on screen, is like watching a tragedy unfold behind glass. As Ava Wong Davies so brilliantly puts it, the play ‘produces a searingly cold heat, the kind you get from frostbite’. For me, the form is crucial in structuring that feeling, containing it to make it bearable to watch, and allowing it to seep into the audience. The script is precisely, rhythmically ‘scored’ to create uncanny echoes through time. At some points, mother and daughter deliver the same line in unison. At other points, repeated images and phrases are refracted: balloons, swimming, fruit trees.
The form conveys the play’s theme of intergenerational trauma and also messes with time, stretching it out of shape. In some ways, Carol and Anna’s suicides are made to seem inevitable, as Anna and Bonnie are already living in their wake before they happen. Yet the simultaneous structure also suspends time, allowing fleeting moments of connection, like Anna’s dance the night before her wedding that recalls her mother dancing, alone in her kitchen. The echoes between their lives are noticed by the audience but felt, liked a missed stair, by the characters, making their grief palpable.
The full effect of the form is only realised in the staging – and requires an extreme precision from the performers to deliver the lines in time. Alex Eales’ design segments the stage into three and Sarah Blenkinsop’s costumes starkly associate each woman with a colour: red for Carol, blue for Anna, white for Bonnie. The colours bleed across the stage like an umbilical cord. Mitchell’s staging keeps the audience at arm’s length, encouraging a structural perspective in which each woman can only be understood – if she can be understood – in the context of her mother/ daughter. Missing that knowledge, the characters cannot make sense of themselves and their lives.
There are particular moments from Katie Mitchell’s production that have lodged in my mind: Hattie Morahan as Carol, repeating ‘a baby’, ‘a baby’, ‘a baby’, over and over again, as if surprised at what her body has produced. With repeated incantation it starts to seem like she is pronouncing a sentence of life imprisonment, as she stares out towards the audience with haunted eyes and empty arms. Kate O’Flynn bursting onto the stage as Anna, bolshy, and difficult and so vulnerable, slurring apologies as she comes onto a doctor she was seeing, only for him to remind her he caught her sleeping with his brother. The transition into the final scene, in which Carol and Anna, the grandmother and mother Bonnie never knew, walk across the stage and brush past Bonnie for a fleeting moment of contact across time and space, accompanied by Melanie Wilson’s haunting, discordant sound design. Alex Eales’ grey, institutional set lifting up to reveal a house, painted white and cream, the script’s final stage direction, ‘the light changes, just a little’, providing space for hope without being saccharine. The house has been there all along but we, like Bonnie, have not been able to see it beyond the grey.
It is December 2019 and I am on a mini break to Hamburg, grimly predicting it will be my last European trip before Britain officially leaves the European Union. I look round the Christmas market, visit the chocolate museum, and go to the Deutsches Schauspielhaus to see Anatomie eines Suizids (translated by Corinna Brocher). My rusty AS-Level German (specialising in transport, healthy eating and the environment) is not up to the pre-show talk and only just capable of buying a programme. Yet, surprisingly, I am able to follow the play. It makes me realise the deceptive simplicity of Birch’s writing, the effectiveness of her use of repetition from Carol’s opening, ‘I’m sorry’ (‘Es tut mir leid’).
The Schauspielhaus production is an uncanny echo of the Royal Court original, with the same set, the same sound design, almost the same direction, but with different casting. Julia Wieninger’s performance as Carol, renamed Clara, has a harder, fiercer edge than Hattie Morahan’s clipped brittleness. Sandra Gerling emphasises Bonnie’s awkwardness and self-containment, concealing a quiet grief, where Adelle Leonce’s Bonnie seems unreachable until her grief became too much to bear, pleading with a doctor to sterilise her because ‘I need to know I am where it ends’.
Watching the production in German without surtitles puts me at another remove from the performance, witnessing the characters’ pain but not sharing in it. Several critics have questioned the ethics of Katie Mitchell’s directing, the way that she puts female characters in mental distress on display, inviting the audience to diagnose them (Anna Harpin’s article is excellent on this). This also makes me wonder what it means to do academic research on a play and a production. I detect in myself the urge to anatomise and dissect, but also the urge to appreciate, describe, capture, connect. Alice Birch has said that she tries not to read reviews ‘because it’s been incredibly painful and I have felt it has stopped me writing. […] When you create a show, you are putting something very personal out’ and critics seem to ‘want to make you feel small or judge you or tell you off’. I do not recognise the criticism I do in this description, but it makes me wary of the potential to do harm as a critic.
It is October 2018 and I have been working on my Anatomy of a Suicide PhD chapter for four months when things start to feel grey. Idly, I wonder whether it was allowing Birch and Mitchell’s bleak world so much space in my brain that is making me feel this way or whether it would have happened anyway. I finish the chapter. The light changes, more than a little. I keep going back to Birch: Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again., Ophelias Zimmer, BLANK, Anatomy of a Suicide. Some plays enter your bloodstream and you have to think about them to write them out.
This is the fourth piece in Exeunt’s Redux Review series, which invites writers to talk about performances across multiple encounters; one a pre-lockdown live staging, one in livestream form. To read them all, click here.