'Anatomy of a Suicide' review 'I see you'

Anatomy of a Suicide – Alice Birch
Royal Court Theatre, 29th June 2017

‘Anatomy of a Suicide’ doesn’t feel like a piece of theatre. It feels like a séance or a dream – or a bit like you’ve joined a cult whilst in a dream and now you’re all performing a séance in your sleep. It’s an incredibly intense experience yet also eerily distance. There were times when I felt like I’d left my body; other times when I felt on the cusp of sleep and moments when I longed to scream or cry. This isn’t an easy show but it is extraordinary. It’s a pulsing, probing and powerful look at three generations of women, all of whom have depression. It’ll make you feel things at your very centre.

Director Katie Mitchell and writer Alice Birch (a proper talent) complement each other beautifully in this meticulously structured yet deeply felt show. Mitchell’s exacting precision – the extraordinary level of detail she expects from her actors – can sometimes feel cold (see: ‘Ophelia’s Zimmer’) but here it feels compassionate (see also Mitchells’ version of Sarah Kane’s ‘Cleansed’, which does ripple gently at the edges of this show). Put very simply, here is a show created by a director who evidently cares deeply about the women standing on her stage.

As the play unfolds and all three women’s lives start to unravel, the care that Katie Mitchell and Alice Birch take – the time they take to listen to their subjects – feels nothing short of revolutionary. Mitchell and Birch are examining these women, holding them, helping them purely by watching them, listening, and giving them time.

All three women stay on stage throughout the show. Their scenes and words overlap and, at some point, we realise these women are related. Mother stands by daughter stands by daughter. All three are trying to find a way to live happily – to honour where they came from and love who they came from, but to also somehow break free.

Alex Eales’s set is a deceptively modest design, which gradually takes on more meaning and magnitude as the years tick by. Three women perform side by side in a dusty gloomy chamber. A number of doors line the back and side walls. As we get to know these three women, the doors open more frequently. We see glimpses of what lies behind the doors, until eventually a huge staircase is revealed. This is the staircase to the family home, which has been passed down the generations. The staircase climbs across the entire backstage, a link that connects all three women – but a super structure that remains hidden, right at the back of their lives. What would happen if they opened up those doors and let the darkness (or light) in?  

The set morphs gradually and subtly as these women’s lives fluctuate: moments of engulfing sadness are punctuated by butterfly-delicate patches of happiness. Often it feels like these women are hiding in this grimy half chamber, too frightened to step into the light of a life properly lived. But sometimes the space feels safe, as if Mitchell and Birch and composer Paul Clark are trying to protect these women. Sounds play continuously throughout the show: the music always seems to be searching for something. When the music pulses the stage might momentarily feel like a womb. When the music throbs, the shadowy chamber becomes a heart, the door its valves. There are times when each of these women give in to their depression - but there is always the shadow of something bigger at the edges of this show, wrapping itself around these women.

The acting is quite something. Mitchell’s attention to detail, her refusal to overlook even a millisecond of this production, has resulted in three awesome performances. Again, the care that these women (director, writer and actors) take to get to know their characters feels like a crucial part of the show. These three female characters might be deeply depressed, lost and let down, but they haven’t been unnoticed.   

Hattie Morahan plays a depressive young woman – Carol - who we first meet in the 70s, after a failed suicide attempt. When Carol gets pregnant she promises her daughter that she will stick around for as long as she can. Morahan’s is probably the trickiest role but she performs with tender determination. As Carol’s depression ebbs and flows she becomes a ghostly chorus that underpins the other two women’s lives. Carol’s cries; her silence, her loneliness, her words repeated again and again – baby, baby, baby – wrap their way around the dialogue in the lives that follow, changing the meaning, shape and colour of future conversation.

Kate O’Flynn performs in the centre of the stage and – as Carol’s daughter Anna – is the heart of this show. O’Flynn is an extraordinarily actress and has a combination of swagger and vulnerability that will slay you. O’Flynn’s Anna is a mess. She is an addict and a depressive, madly trying to outrun herself and the sadness that she has inherited. In the very first scene, Anna is coming down off an almighty trip and begging an ex-boyfriend for help. She’s broken her wrist - only she’s so fucked she can’t feel it. Her body doesn’t quite seem to be her own anymore and Anna’s words swirl around inside her mouth, loose and lost. She spends the rest of the play swinging wildly between states of intense feeling and absolute absence, searching vainly for a stable place in between.

Finally there is Adele Leonce’s Bonnie: the daughter of the daughter who is so haunted by her past that she has almost left her body completely. When Bonnie speaks, her words come out sealed up and protected: she isn’t inside anything that she says. But despite this awful detachment, we begin to get to know Leonce’s Bonnie. We find her in the ‘spaces in between’ her words: the smile she might let slip during conversation or the obvious pleasure she takes as she carefully plants some flowers.

It is fitting for a play about depression – a condition that can make speaking so difficult – that is in the silent sections that we really connect with these three women. Every scene change is a poem. The actresses are undressed in front of us. They stand in their lingerie, exposed. Then the props of everyday life appear: a dress, a bag or a hat. But we have stood with these women in silence and we have seen them.

The play begins to feel like a search for something better and something still. With every scene change, all three actresses freeze and turn towards us, as if they are looking for help or answers. In a devastating central scene, O’Flynn’s Anna describes what it feels like to be destroyed by drugs and depression. She flounders about – honestly and wildly – trying to find the ‘Moment’ that everything changed.  She stumbles on the word ‘Mother’. She catches again and again on the word ‘Moment’. That is what we are watching: a restless, feeling and forensic search for the exact instance that everything turned, so that we might halt the cycle of depression and help these women find a fleeting moment of happiness and calm.