Written by Alice Birch. Sugary Rum Produtcions, Chopt Logic and Seymour Centre. 6-29 October 2022
If you’re the kind of theatre nerd who gets off on inventive uses of theatrical form, as well a blistering good performances (and I definitely am), then the return season of Anatomy of a Suicide at Seymour Centre should be top of your “must see” list. There’s a reason the play is acclaimed, and that playwright Alice Birch is considered one of Britain’s best.
Three generations of women deal with trauma, passed down from one to other, as the ripples of one suicide create waves of pain in the future. It sounds like misery-porn, and in some ways it is, but Anatomy of a Suicide is saved from the weight of its own premise by presenting all three lives simultaneously. Instant comparisons are drawn through the lives of grandmother Carol, mother Anna and daughter Bonnie, moments of symmetry emerge as well as moments of revelation and release.
It takes a few minutes to settle into the flow of the play, with three scenes playing at once, tightly timed to allow dialogue to synchronise and overlap. It forces you to let go and stop trying to “pay attention” to any specific moment and let the triptych wash over you. Director Shane Anthony modulated the movement and pace so you’re never lost, you never miss a beat, and the ensemble fill their silences with as much meaning as their words. It’s the kind of theatrical dance that gets me excited to go to the theatre.
And the trio of leads are as indelible as they are flawless. Anna Houston’s Carol is brittle and desperate, sadness radiates from her immaculate facade. Anna Samson’s Anna builds herself up from addiction to stability slowly and painfully. And Kate Skinner’s Bonnie is guarded and controlled, determined not to let her pain spread to others. Each performance hits different notes but together they form a symphony of storytelling. They build on top of each other, showing three women who are incapable of really connecting to the world around them and who deal with that in different ways.
It’s clear Alice Birch is a great writer, and a great teller of women’s stories. Her debt to Caryl Churchill is evident but for me, Birch imbues the conceptual with a more grounded emotional tone. Not that the two playwrights are in competition, we need them both and more besides. Motherhood, seen through Birch’s lens, is a complicated equation and not a decision to be taken lightly. As the weight of generations falls on Bonnie’s shoulders, her decisions are intriguing.
I have a slight issue with one aspect of the text – Bonnie’s sexuality. Each of the three women are presented as struggling with issues. Carol’s depression, Anna’s addiction and by unfortunate inference Bonnie’s sexuality becomes her defining trait. I’m not suggesting Birch thinks of Bonnie’s lesbianism in the same way as depression or mental health, but a clearer distinction could have been drawn.
Anatomy of a Suicide is great theatre, and I’m glad this 2019 production has been remounted for another run. The Seymour Centre has had a terrific season this year with four of my favourite shows of 2022 (Heroes of the Fourth Turning, American Ulster, Albion and now Anatomy of a Suicide), bring on 2023!
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