Reviews West End & Central Published 11 June 2017

Review: Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court

3 June – 8 July 2017

The light changes. Just a little: Rosemary Waugh reviews the world premiere of Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide.

Rosemary Waugh
Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey.

There have been many, many words written on female depression and suicide. Just yesterday morning, as I sat reading Bluets by Maggie Nelson on the train to London, I came across this thought in relation to Billie Holiday’s Lady Sings the Blues:

“138. But perhaps there is no real mystery here at all. ‘Life is usually stronger than people’s love for it’ (Adam Phillips): this is what Holiday’s voice makes audible. To hear it is to understand why suicide is both so easy and so difficult: to commit it one has to stamp out this native triumphance, either by training oneself, over time, to dehabilitate or disbelieve it (drugs help here), or by force of ambush.”

In a much more famous example, there is the description Sylvia Plath gives of Esther Greenwood’s attempted suicide in The Bell Jar – a few short paragraphs that have remained suspended in my periphery vision ever since I read them as a teenager:

“Cobwebs touched my face with the softness of moths. Wrapping my black coat around me like my own sweet shadow, I unscrewed the bottle of pills and started taking them swiftly, between gulps of water, one by one by one.

At first nothing happened, but as I approached the bottom of the bottle, red and blue lights began to flash before my eyes. The bottle slid from my fingers and I lay down.

The silence drew off, baring the pebbles and shells and all the tatty wreckage of my life. Then, at the rim of vision, it gathered itself, and in one sweeping tide, rushed me to sleep.”

Yet despite all the ink and hours given over to deconstructing and profiling the topic, very little of the art produced concludes on such a delicately profound note of hope as Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide. Imagine staring at a glass filled with murky, stagnant water only to witness, at the last moment, one perfect bubble of oxygen rise to the surface and escape.

Birch’s play is structured so that three narratives are performed simultaneously. The first, centred on Carol (Hattie Morahan) is set in the 1970s; the second, centred on Anna (Kate O’Flynn) is set in the 1990s-2000s; and the third, centred on Bonnie (Adelle Leonce), is set in the 2030s. In its world premiere production directed by Katie Mitchell, the three stories are performed side-by-side with the divisions of the stage marked by three doorways on a plain grey wall at the back of Alex Eales’ set design. There are no physical barriers between the characters, reinforcing the idea that there is very little separating the three members of this family. It is almost impossible to box off one generation from the next – after all, the mother in one setting is the same human as the baby being cradled in the previous one – and in the case of Anatomy of a Suicide, trauma, grief and mental distress freely bleed from mother to daughter.

The answer to your first question is: no, it is not hard to follow. Dialogue is exactly timed so that individual moments from each time period float from foreground to background, like a mass of clouds shape-shifting and moving on a windy day. When they do overlap, it is often in a deliberate attempt to underline repeated features of conversations: first names incessantly used to seek an answer to impossible questions and the one-word replies given to evade them. The most poignant passages of overlap, however, occur through gestures not words. Mother and daughter existing at different junctures in history both slump slightly onto a kitchen table, one elbow on the surface, and one hand towards the forehead. It is often in our unconscious gestures that we are reminded of parents and relatives. Each time I clumsily grasp a tea mug and cause my wedding ring to crash against the crockery, I see clearly for one microsecond my mother’s hand making the same movement, her silver jewellery clanging on a cup.

The parallel narratives also make it possible to appreciate the changing lifestyles of women from the late 20th century onwards. Carol is the quintessential crazed housewife. Appearances must be maintained above all else, with any madness relegated to the most private of private spheres. The cracks, of course, do show. Her first admittance to hospital with slit wrists is whispered nastily about, and her attempts to avoid a party and hide in a room smoking does not – almost cannot, in that environment – go unnoticed and unchecked. When medical professionals address her depression, the proffered treatment is electroconvulsive therapy, despite the patient’s repeated refusals to go through with it.

Anna, meanwhile, takes on the symbols of liberation (miniskirts, partying, sex), yet none of it actually offers her freedom, instead her wild behaviour all becomes a symptom of her unanchored grief. As she is gradually subsumed under a sea of drug addition and unravelling emotion, it is impossible not to feel the absolute sorrow in her storyline. The transformation of the pony-tailed girl in a neat denim jacket (Vicki Szent-Kirallyi) being told of her mother’s death into the young woman supine after injecting heroin is pure tragedy. The vulnerability that O’Flynn instils in Anna makes the character, even in her most destructive moments, desperately difficult not to root for.

With Bonnie, the major surface changes to circumstance are also in place. Life in Britain in the 2030s – in case you are wondering – involves many familiar elements (a beleaguered National Health Service; awful work parties). We will, according to costume designer Sarah Blenkinsop’s vision, be dressing in a classy selection of white, cream and baby blue. The other good news is that the effects of over-fishing haven’t yet resulted in a complete closure of the fishing industry, and same-sex relationships remain as socially acceptable as they are now (listen up, members of the DUP). As Anna was to Carol, Bonnie is notably different in tastes and characteristics to her mother.

Despite this, the major part of the play sets up the suggestion that she too will eventually re-enact her own version of the same story. The audience are not alone in suspecting it. One night, her father arrives at the old family home where Bonnie is staying, because she wouldn’t pick up the phone and he thought… well he thought exactly what everyone in the Royal Court auditorium is thinking will at some point take place. As it is, he finds her returning to the house from a night-time walk, her worsening insomnia flicking on yet more warning lights.

Antatomy of a Suicide does not have a happy ending in a conventional sense. It does not resolve Bonnie’s collection of problems, sticking cartoon character plasters on the bits where it hurts. It doesn’t even really suggest what Bonnie does next. It shows, instead, the minute disruption to the narrative necessary to prove that what we thought was inevitable is not. A disruption deliberately instigated by Bonnie. It is a tiny, almost imperceptible moment of change. The smallest of realignments to a flickering compass needle. Or, as the final stage direction says: “The light changes. Just a little.”

Anatomy of a Suicide is on at the Royal Court until 8th July 2017. Click here for more details.

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Rosemary Waugh

Rosemary is a freelance arts and theatre journalist, who regularly writes for Time Out and The Stage.

Review: Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court Show Info


Directed by Katie Mitchell

Written by Alice Birch

Cast includes Adelle Leonce, Hattie Morahan, Kate O’Flynn, Gershwyn Eustache Jnr, Paul Hilton, Peter Hobday, Sarah Malin, Jodie McNee, Vicki Szent-Kirallyi, Dickon Tyrrell

Original Music Paul Clark

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