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Anatomy of a Suicide review at Royal Court, London – ‘full of pain and strange beauty’

The cast of Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court, London. Photo: Stephen Cummiskey The cast of Anatomy of a Suicide at the Royal Court, London. Photo: Tristram Kenton

Alice Birch’s new play is scored like a piece of music. Her latest collaboration with director Katie Mitchell explores the lives of three generations of women from the same family. It is an extraordinary echoing text, full of pain and strange beauty.

The three stories play out simultaneously on stage, the dialogue from one scene overlapping with the other two in a manner that borders on the choral.

In the 1970s, Carol tries to take her life. She does not succeed. She becomes pregnant and has a daughter but the need does not leave her. The child forces her to stay, for a while, but she knows eventually she will have to go.

In the late 1990s, Anna, a recovering heroin addict, meets a young filmmaker and marries him. They are happy for a while until she becomes pregnant. The birth of her daughter triggers a breakdown from which she struggles to recover.

In the near future, Bonnie embarks on a volatile relationship with a young woman. She is anchored to the family home in ways she can’t fully explain. She is terrified about the prospect of having children of her own.

Birch and Mitchell explores the way that the actions of the mother impacts on the daughter. Damage is handed down, like a house with plum trees in the garden. Anna and Bonnie carry the loss of their mothers around with them. Death follows them too, It has been allowed in.

Each woman’s story takes place on a separate section of the stage, unified by Alex Eales’ pale grey-walled set. The three characters are repeatedly stripped and clothed again by the other cast members, Carol in red capes and dresses, Anna in teal, Bonnie in utilitarian beige and blue.

Hattie Morahan, Kate O’Flynn and Adelle Leonce are magnificent both in terms of the emotional intensity of their performances and their precision. Morahan can convey so much through the silent smoking of a cigarette. O’Flynn, sinking into post-natal psychosis, delivers long frantic monologues, while Leonce excels as a woman holding so much in. The moments in which she breaks down are devastating to watch. The supporting cast, playing several roles each, and switching between older and younger versions of the same characters, also do superb work.

These are ideas that Mitchell has explored before in her work, in Ophelias Zimmer, but also in The Forbidden Zone – the suicidal impulse, particularly in women; the erasure of self; taking control over one’s own story – there’s thematic overlap with Cleansed here too. Birch has provided a text that explores these ideas in a formally invigorating way. Unexpectedly light and spry in its early scenes, Anatomy of a Suicide builds and builds to an incredibly powerful finale in which hope, while distant, can still be glimpsed.

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Strikingly written and hauntingly performed collaboration between Alice Birch and Katie Mitchell