Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London (****)
Love her or hate her, Katie Mitchell is surely our most bravely iconoclastic theatre director working in Britain today. If Robert Lepage is the magician who smoothes the cracks between technology and stagecraft, Katie Mitchell is the one who adds tough edginess. Almost nothing she does fails to carry a febrile sense of dramatic unease about it.
So it is here in Alice Birch’s extraordinary three-plied narrative that in the question and answer session following the performance I saw, she described writing it (in four weeks!) as being akin to composing a music score, so precise the rhythms she wanted to capture. The script, as printed, horizontal, running across a page in three columns, is even written like a music score.
At the Q&A, Mitchell, looking as cool as a cucumber and twinkly-eyed with mischief pulled no punches about how difficult it was to direct Birch’s script.
Asked why certain `motifs’ appeared in the play, the three women, mother, daughter and grand-daughter being `dressed’ and undressed’ like mannequins by other members of the cast would make you believe she was making a point to do with the `objectification’ of women. Mitchell, gurgling with delight described her choice as merely `expediency’. `There are so many scenes and different time frames, it was one way of getting the characters changed. Either do it out of view or at the side of the stage or do it in front of the audience’. Make it part of the spectacle.
Likewise, asked what she and Birch hoped the audience would take away from it. Mitchell declared she was only interested in `our thoughts’ whilst Birch admitted she doesn’t really think about the audience when she’s writing. `It’s about me and my relationship to what I want to say.’
From all of which you might think Anatomy of a Suicide would turn out to be more of a cerebral than an emotional exercise. But that, of course, is very far from the case. Anatomy of a Suicide is an emotional knuckle duster of a ride, at least it was for this viewer, dealing as it does in drugs, mental chaos, family legacies, ECT treatment, birth and death to name but a few of the areas into which it delves.
Part of its fascination – and the large audience who stayed for the Q&A were clearly thoroughly engaged – surely lies in its overlapping narratives which take place on-stage in real-time but in different time frames. So whilst Hattie Morahan’s fragile Carol is struggling to stay emotionally afloat, we see her daughter, Kate O’Flynn’s Anna, doing drugs, being shakily rehabilitated, having her own child, Adelle Leonce’s Bonnie, who, a nurse, is also having her own struggles to expunge the ghosts of her mother and grandmother’s instabilities.
Birch, who wrote the screenplay for the recently acclaimed film, Lady Macbeth, captures some awful interior truths as to female psychology whilst synchronising dialogue so that though enacting different scenarios, the characters echo each other but in entirely different contexts, showing just how difficult it is to escape one’s inheritance.
It’s a fascinating multi-layered, multi-coloured process of reflection, each moment reflecting backwards or forwards onto the other, a study you might say in Time foreshortened as if looking down a microscope at three inter-related lives.
Not that all this is entirely clear at a first sitting. Trying to catch three lots of dialogue simultaneously is, for some of us, a challenge in itself! The odd word shoots out. You hang on to that. And all the time, Paul Clark’s music score is throbbing away unnervingly in the background, building tension for an ending to which you feel sure writer and director are leading us. Another suicide.
Feeling drained by the end, it’s hard to over-emphasise the skill with which the cast play this raw but precision made artefact. Special mention to O’Flynn’s damaged Anna, to Leonce’s inhibited Bonnie but also Paul Hilton, Jodie McNee’s lesbian lover, Sarah Malin in a rich variety of characters. But really, each and everyone of the cast is vital to the full materialising of this theatrical rubric cube.
At the Q&A Mitchell had said her main interest was to meet the technical challenges of Birch’s script and `to keep audiences looking.’
She certainly does that with guile, mastery and cool, clinical command. Impressive doesn’t come even half way close!
Anatomy of a Suicide
A new play by Alice Birch
Jamie: Gershwyn Eustache Jnr
John: Paul Hilton
Dan/Dave/Felix/Luke/Nick: Peter Hobday
Bonnie: Adelle Leonce
Daisy/Diane/Emma/Esther/Karen/May: Sarah Malin
Jo/Laura/Lola: Jodie McNee
Carol: Hattie Morahan
Anna: Kate O’Flynn
Anna/Daisy/Louise: Sophia Pettit, Vicki Szent-Kirallyi
Tim/Toby/Steve/Mark: Dickon Tyrrell
Director: Katie Mitchell
Set Designer: Alex Eales
Costume Designer: Sarah Blenkinsop
Lighting Designer: James Farncombe
Composer: Paul Clark
Sound Designer: Melanie Wilson
Associate Director: Lily McLeish
Assistant Director: Grace Gummer
Casting Director: Amy Ball
World premiere of Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court Jerwood Theatre Downstairs, London, June 3, 2017. Runs to July 8, 2017.
Review published on this site, June 15, 2017.