Last year writer Alice Birch was named one of the Creative England 50, a roll call of the country’s most accomplished up-and-coming creative talents who are not only innovative, but disruptive. One critic has described her work as “a cluster bomb of subversion”.
Her ambitious new play tells the stories of three generations of women dealing with the painful legacy of suicide. Rather than dealing with each individually, mother, daughter, and granddaughter’s troubled tales are played out separately but at the same time. Concurrent conversations ricochet not only across the stage but across decades.
Hattie Morahan plays troubled housewife Carol whose story traverses the 70s and 80s. Her daughter Anna (Kate O’Flynn) is a self-destructive young adult growing up during the late 90s, while Bonnie (Adelle Leonce) is the head of an A&E department and wrestling with the ghosts of the past in the 2030s.
Adelle Leonce as Bonnie (photographs by Stephen Cummiskey)
Three stories happening simultaneously is a difficult feat and has the potential for a muddled evening. But it’s brilliantly done, creating a rich tapestry as the interweaving threads dovetail perfectly. Grief and mental health are complex issues and Anatomy of a Suicide never tries to reduce them to simplistic tropes or narrow explanations.
Instead we see how the legacy of someone taking their life can manifest itself in subtle ways. Bonnie keeps people at an impersonal distance when, having turned up unexpectedly to a colleague’s birthday, they assume she’s there to berate them about a work issue. When someone shows an interest in Anna, her instinct is to push them away and berate them for treating her as “a misery project”.
The scenes are deft but vivid, and the dialogue is razor-sharp. Placing the sequential stories side-by-side adds depth to the backstories of the other characters, without resorting to flashbacks or long exposition. It also brings into stark relief the contrasting cultures of the different generations. Carol is clinically depressed and is repeatedly asked whether she’s happy or told she’s bored. People talk about rather than to her, and the psychologists try to fit her into their own self-aggrandising theories. When Anna is suffers in the same way, she’s encouraged to talk about what she’s gone through instead. It’s a powerful depiction of how the language of the time was woefully insufficient.
Hattie Morahan, Kate O’Flynn and Adelle Leonce are superb as the three women, playing them with a keen sense of poignancy and empathy. Paul Hilton and Gershwyn Eustache Jnr move splendidly between the decades as both husbands and fathers hollowed out by despair. The rest of the cast fill multiple roles and Jodie McNee stands out as Jo, whose awkward affection for Bonnie is endearing and funny.
Anatomy of a Suicide is hugely impressive. Birch manifests the difficulties of living with suicide and asks how much is inherited, even when a person is too young to remember? Is nature or nurture to blame? While never giving a definitive answer, we are asked to consider whether, in still not fully addressing the problem, we will be inflicting lasting effects on future generations.
Anatomy of a Suicide is at the Royal Court until 8 July