The Royal Court rarely gives much away on the subject and nature of their shows in advance of their opening. Obscure, abbreviated paragraphs on the website and that is largely it. So perhaps, in spite of the rather specific title of the play, it didn’t really hit me what this play would be about. Maybe that surprise contributed heavily to just how profoundly this play impacted me. But it would be unfair to overstate that too much for this play connected with me because of its truthfulness.
Depression, mental illness and suicide are subjects and themes that we are beginning to see more discussion of in wider popular culture. But, truthfully, this is the first time that a theatrical production has captured what I feel, what I have experienced, and what I believe to be true. Glib as it sounds, it spoke right to my heart.
It was a specific moment, right towards the end of the show, that felt as if I was watching a reflection of my own life. A woman, Bonnie (Adelle Leonce), had avoided emotional intimacy all her life. A push and a pull keeping her away from anyone who tried to get near her – a fear of not being able to give them the emotional connection that they needed (too much collateral damage inside) and a need to keep others distant, away from her own space where she can battle her demons in private. It was a moment towards the end of Bonnie’s story where she finally cracks open, just a little, and exasperatedly shouts, ‘I need to know that I am where it ends… That it goes no further, no deeper, no longer. That it finishes here.’
And at that moment, sitting in the darkness of the auditorium, tears started to roll down my cheeks. For those words could have so easily fallen from my own lips.
Anatomy of a Suicide follows three women across three different periods of time. Only it becomes quickly apparent that the three characters are connected. However, the play does not unfold with the three women in the same scenes, part of a single plot, and one simple storyline. Instead, the show unfolds like a triptych, with each woman fixed to the same section of the stage for the play’s duration – almost like a living painting – flowing chronologically left to right with Carol (Hattie Morahan) in the 1960s and 1970s on the left-hand side of the stage, Anna (Kate O’Flynn) in the 1990s and 2000s in the centre, and Bonnie in the 2030s on the right.
What we examine, as the lives of these three women tumble and unravel in front of us, is the role of nature and nurture in mental illness. The theory of inherited trauma. For this story unfurls to reveal that these women are related – but their presence in each other’s lives almost entirely absent. For Carol was a suicidal mother, to Anna. And that trauma of a lost mother has damaged Anna irreparably. Or is it something genetic that has passed from Carol to Anna has that causes her self-destructive efforts?
And this flows on to the next generation, where Bonnie too lacks a mother. For her own mother, Anna, committed suicide when she was only a baby, and the damage that has done to her has scuppered any chance of healthy emotional connection.
Direction comes from Katie Mitchell, and the production certainly bears many of her hallmarks. The stage is stripped back, an austere grey. The world these women live in lacking colour and sunlight, its walls like a prison. Scene changes are slo-mo segues with the characters moving as if in nightmares, where it’s impossible to run. And for the wardrobe changes, the women are stripped and dressed in front of us, like puppets on a string. Doll parts.
And all of this feeds into the slowly suffocating sense of defeat that defines this play.
The three women, though tied together by familial bonds, could not be more different. Each has challenged themselves with a different method to battle their demons. Carol, closed and impossible to read, tries to warm to social events, parties and motherhood. She tried to blend in, to adopt ‘normal’ behaviour. To be the template wife and mother.
Whereas her daughter, Anna, throws herself into motherhood with relish. In fact, Anna throws herself into everything – drinks, drugs, love and communes. There’s a recklessness to her but there is also spirit. It is a hopeful yearning that she wears. She tries to live life with her arms wide open. Whereas her daughter, Bonnie, swings back the opposite way. To live with her heart closed, her arms always remaining down by her side, too frightened to touch anyone for fear of infecting them, too fragile to be held too tightly by others.
But they all fail. Their strategies defeated. No matter which option they take, they damage themselves and whoever tries to love them. And this hurts to see. That Alice Birch is laying out for us to see, clearly, that there is no winning strategy to living with mental illness. Survival itself a minor miracle. No matter what we are advised, no matter how we try to live with depression, there is no happy ending.
Alice Birch had already shown her capacity for wordplay and mastery of language with her breakthrough stunner, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. But Anatomy of a Suicide furthers her reputation in my eyes, no end. Depression and mental illness may be emotional states and experiences many can relate to, but that doesn’t mean that we can all capture the tsunami of emotions or the numbness in words. Yet it seems Alice can – and that is quite breathtaking.
There’s a section, towards the climax, when Carol dramatizes the fatigue of fighting a losing battle, of the exhaustion that has come from just holding on with her fingernails for so many years, just so she could fulfil her duty as a mother. ‘I have Stayed,’ she says, broken and quiet. ‘I have Stayed for as long as I possibly can.’
And with that, my heart just ripped right into two.
I cannot possibly comment on whether Alice has had direct experience of the emotions and experiences she has written about here – and it would be inappropriate, to say the least, to speculate. But for all the excellence in the acting on stage, and for all the expected understated brilliance in Katie Mitchell’s production, I left the Royal Court marvelling at the writing.
I cannot say that others will be as impacted as me. Of course not – we all have walked different paths and have had different experiences. And, I suppose, this is, in many ways, not an orthodox review or assessment. I wanted to write this though because I see many plays, attend many shows. Perhaps there’s a certain fatigue that comes with that. But all of the above was testament to me of the power of theatre. That for all I have watched and reviewed, great writing can still connect, even with a jaded reviewer like myself.
As I got on the bus afterwards, my immediate response on social media was that I felt a heavy weight had been pushed down on my chest. I don’t know my family history as well as the characters in Anatomy do. I have a complicated family history, full of splits and arguments, but I’ve heard enough stories for the thoughts of, this all ends with me, to have crossed my mind more than a few times.
I do not know for sure if there is a genetic element to the way I feel, or perhaps I do not need to know this. Perhaps the legacy of what has gone before me shows in my own behaviour. And for a show that spoke to me so strongly to still leave me with many questions on my own identity and history… Well, that really is impressive writing indeed.
Royal Court Theatre, London, to July 8, 2017
Tickets from £15.
All production images by Stephen Cummiskey.