Three generations of women live out their lives simultaneously, in this devastating examination of inherited trauma, suicide, and motherhood.
Two women kill themselves, slowly, for two hours.
Time crashes into each other. Linear time ceases to exist. Past present and future elide. A triptych of female pain. Generations of hurt reach across the decades but can’t quite cross those last few feet; the only boundary between them their own isolation. A trauma reverberates down the generations, only (medicalised) violence putting pay to (self-inflicted) violence.
And a woman who wears nothing but red.
Alice Birch’s new play Anatomy of a Suicide opened last Thursday at the Royal Court Theatre, directed by previous Birch collaborator Katie Mitchell. A vivid study of suicide, loss, and the way lasting effects of trauma, three stories are told simultaneously. The stage is dissected into three, each part existing within a different time zone (the 1970s, the 1990s, and the 2030s), each inhabited by a young woman: grandmother, mother, daughter living out their lives in union. In the 1970s Carol (a devastatingly effective Hattie Morahan, forensic in her elusiveness) struggles to remain alive for the sake of her daughter Anna (a 1990s hippie, with harder drugs) whose own daughter Bonnie lives in a future more concerned with love and career advancement than depleting fishing stocks.
They fuck you up, your mum and, well just your mum in this case. And your grandma.
This is a play about depression: the opening scene shows a desperately worried husband distractedly wrangling over floors flood-wrecked by a tub running over with bathwater and blood. His wife is “fine”, and remains “fine” throughout medication, ECT, different doctors, threats of Sectioning, a new house, and a baby: a tyrant in a romper suit, a “ fish hook round my middle pulling me up when I want to be under.”
The girl who once jumped off buildings to the delight of her less adventurous classmates is now a study in controlled and decisive terror at her own aliveness. Her daughter (Kate O’Flynn, playing an infuriatingly sympathetic and instantly recognisable mess) ploughs through cults, over sharing, heroin, hippie chic, ladette, statutory rape (disturbingly brushed over) and finally love and motherhood as transient solutions to more than a lifetime of trauma. Her own daughter (the always watchable Adelle Leonce) mirrors her grandmother’s stoic, arctic numbness. A protective self-contained froideur that not even “the best sex ever” (lesbian, as it happens) can defrost. Sex without intimacy. Motherhood without love. Or maybe with love, when love just isn’t enough.
This is not a play about depression: it is a play about mothers and daughters. How we struggle to establish our own identities and escape the shadow of our genetic legacy. It could be a play about the nature or nurture debate, but Birch is far too careful a playwright to reduce this cathartic twisty tragedy into a mere Ted talk.
Or a feminist lecture, yet feminism run through the play. Reproductive rights, sexual orientation, gender double standards, the myth of the happy housewife, the myth of having it all, motherhood.
It wasn’t until seeing the play for the second time that the level of complexity around all these largely unanswered questions really became clear. The absence of direct focus on the issue of consent draws more attention to it than a more detailed exploration could have done. Carol steadfastly rejects the same ECT her daughter presumably gave some form of consent to, but the fact Carol is not even allowed to view her new home unaccompanied suggests her right to make decisions about her own body is temporary and on sufferance. Anna’s drug-addled (and questionably illegal) seduction of a teenage boy is humiliating and traumatic to her and her alone; even when taking the role of predator, women are always the victim. Finally Bonnie’s decisive choice to stop generations of inherited trauma could be a rally for female reproductive rights, but the hollowness of her perceived lack of options defangs it. Which is as it should be, because this is a play about women: real, individual women, not causes.
The male characters are strangely passive and two-dimensional, and while it’s hard not to ponder why this doesn’t feel lacking. Women have been reduced to wives, girlfriends and the odd supporting (and supportive) nurse or secretary for ever, let the men take their turn. Not all stories have to be about men. It is pleasing that one woman’s mixed-race relationship and another’s same-sex relationship are treated in such an utterly casual and unremarkable (and unremarked) way, but fundamentally this is a play about three woman. There are interesting interludes from visiting children (apparently children from the 1970s to the 2030s are equally given to gnomic wisdoms and startlingly moments of insight in their childlike straight-talking), but only the three leads feel really real. Perhaps that’s intentional. Perhaps they are the only real ones.
The staging is that deceptively clever kind that feels like the obvious or only choice. The overlapping stories and dialogue led to some confusing or challenging moments in previews but these had been smoothed out by press night. Moments big and small are mirrored, dialogue and gesture showing a genetic legacy trapped in half a century of oppression.
There is little attempt to explain or hand wave the origin of a (multiple-) life long desire for non-existence. “Like carpenters they want to know which tools. They never ask why build.” (Anne Sexton, ‘Wanting to Die’) Does it matter where Carol’s original depression came from? A body in motion tends to stay in motion. Did Carol’s suicide render the future (present? past?) inevitable? A body at rest tends to stay at rest.
Two women kill themselves, slowly, for fifty years.