Hattie Morahan and Paul Hilton in 'Anatomy of a Suicide'
Hattie Morahan and Paul Hilton in 'Anatomy of a Suicide' © Stephen Cummiskey

This is a remarkable piece of work from Alice Birch on so many levels. For a start, there is the subject, as Birch unflinchingly considers suicide and whether a propensity towards it can be passed on. And then there is the form. This isn’t so much one play as three-in-one, as Birch tells three separate stories, about three generations of women, side-by-side on stage and simultaneously. The form meets the subject, in that the weight of the past in the present is constantly, physically felt. It’s a haunting piece of theatre handled with transfixing skill by director Katie Mitchell.

We watch mother (Carol), in the 1970s, daughter (Anna), in the 1990s, and granddaughter (Bonnie), in the 2030s, each battle with depression. Anna and Bonnie also struggle with the legacy of Carol’s suicide. The question hovering over the drama is whether Carol’s death leaves an indelible imprint in the lives of her daughter and granddaughter and, if so, why. Birch and Mitchell don’t answer this question; rather, they evoke the feeling of living with that shadow, building a piece of theatre that works like music, its motifs, patterns and repetitions creating an overwhelming emotional effect.

Much of the action takes place in the house that becomes intimately entwined with the family’s tragedies. But each story begins in a hospital — Carol and Anna as patients, Bonnie, who will try to break free of the past, as a doctor — and Alex Eales’s oppressive and evocative grey set contains the three narratives within one sterile room, in which the women seem trapped. Adjacent to one another, their stories unfold in counterpoint, each retaining its integrity, yet linked by occasional overlaps in the dialogue and the characters’ movements.

Mitchell orchestrates this with impeccable precision and the performances are beautifully modulated, each a study in vulnerability and determination in a different key. Hattie Morahan’s charismatic Carol (in red) is fragile, a bit of her always distant, yet fiercely determined to “stay” for her daughter; Kate O’Flynn’s Anna (in blues and greens) is warm, rebellious, funny, but gripped by sudden terrors; Adelle Leonce’s Bonnie (in white) is contained, frozen, fearful of emotional commitment. Around them, a supporting cast slip through doors and time zones, subtly changing age and exuding concern.

While the form limits more detailed interrogation of the theme, which is regrettable, this is a searing and tender piece. And amid the bleakness there is humour and a final change of key.

To July 8 at the Royal Court’s Jerwood Theatre (Downstairs) royalcourttheatre.com

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