In the trailblazing footsteps of Caryl Churchill, Sarah Kane and, before them, Edward Bond, the current purple patch of invigorating, groundbreaking new drama continues at the Royal Court with Alice Birch’s Anatomy of a Suicide. It’s a tour de force in which a trio of plays is simultaneously being performed as we follow the misfortunes of three related women – a mother, a daughter and a granddaughter – over seven decades. The narrative is kind of linear, with Carol’s story beginning in 1973, her daughter Anna’s in 1998 and her granddaughter’s in 2033.
The plot can be briefly summarised. When we first encounter Carol (Hattie Morahan) she has unsuccessfully tried to kill herself by slashing her wrists. She survives, has a daughter Anna (Kate O’Flynn) who becomes a drug addict, rehabilitates, marries a documentary filmmaker, has a child, Bonnie, followed by a breakdown during which she electrocutes herself with a hairdryer while taking a bath. In adulthood Bonnie (Adelle Leonce), a lesbian and a doctor working in Accident and Emergency, is so emotionally withdrawn she’s incapable of having a serious relationship with either sex, and for her procreation is a dirty word.
What Birch is saying in the course of her two-hour (no interval) investigation into the nature of suicide is not entirely explicit, though there’s definitely the suggestion that suicide is hereditary and can be genetically transmitted. Whether this is possible or not I’m unqualified to say, but would doubt it.
In the end, though, it doesn’t really matter. Birch’s experiment with multiple time zones, the overlapping dialogue – symphonic in nature – and her bold attempt to tell three separate (but interrelated) stories at the same time, is a major theatrical adventure that director Katie Mitchell orchestrates punctiliously. Initial obfuscation soon gives way to comprehension, and while the play makes unfamiliar demands, it gets easier to follow as it goes along.
Alex Eales’ set – a bleak box lit by three overhanging fluorescent strips of light and dominated by seven doors – is appropriately bleak without making any attempt to delineate the play’s three time spans. The same may be said of Sarah Blenkinsop’s costumes, whose many changes (irritatingly so) involve the rest of the cast stripping the three female protagonists down to their underwear before supplying each with a different set of clothes.
The performances under Mitchell’s clinical eye are accomplished, especially Morahan’s, O’Flynn’s and Leonce’s. All three women convincingly navigate, over a period of about a decade, the changes in their tortured, complex characters. Not a fun night out, but a bold and stimulating challenge.