If dramatizing the story of three generations of women over three decades wasn’t challenge enough, Alice Birch’s new play ‘Anatomy of a Suicide’ tells all three at the same time. Sounds like torture? It’s not. Above and beyond the technical experiment, it’s a heart-felt and honest account of severe depression in the lives of three very different women who share a tragic inheritance.

The stage is divided into three with the helpful addition of the year in question projected behind each scene. Scenes and costumes are changed with robotic precision as the years role by. Carol, played by Hattie Morahan starts her story in the seventies, her daughter Anna played by Kate O’Flynn in the nineties and her daughter, Bonnie played by Adelle Leonce set in the near future. It’s a highly technical feat for the actors, the play text describing where lines overlap, interrupt and pause across the parallel lives.

Initially, it must be said, it feels a little like hard work, getting your head around three consecutive performances but it’s not long before you trust Katie Mitchell’s direction to lead the eye where it needs to go or just enjoy the fact that you might be watching a slightly different play to the person next to you. Either way, it would be possible to watch the play repeatedly and see a different aspect a little clearer each time. The dramatic conceit is meaningful as well as experimental, showing the profound wound that has not healed across the generations. There’s no point asking, why does one women struggle with suicidal ideation without looking at the family she was born into; her genetic inheritance, and personal or cross-generational trauma.

The cast are exceptional, managing this technical play whilst convincingly bringing severely depressed characters to life. Morahan’s faded Carol, is a hopeless house-wife according to her acid-tongued sister in-law played brilliantly by Sarah Malin who is equally precise in other smaller parts. Morahan is entirely convincing as a mother who is desperate to die but being held in the world by her daughter, ‘she’s a fish hook round my middle pulling me up when I want to be under.’ But it’s hard to take your eyes of Kate O’Flynn as her daughter Anna. And when all three characters are playing different scenes at once, it can feel like a competition. O’Flynn was brilliant in the Glass Menagerie and she has an opportunity to really fly here; vulnerable, vicious and incredibly funny.

At times the naturalism of the dialogue is stretched a little too far to fit the conceit. There are necessarily a lot of pauses which are at times clearly in the interest of another scene and the sheer number of scene/costume changes did get tiresome…but I’m being picky here.

With so much discussion around the use of technology and mental health it would have been exciting to imagine how Bonnie might have employed technology in 2033. Adele Leonce gives a subtle performance of a brittle wounded soul but I think Birch missed a trick here. Bonnie is a doctor, saving others and eventually has a form of break-down retreating from life with a rabbit for company in the country home where her mother and grandmother killed themselves. She has a horror of having children herself for fear of perpetuating the ‘sickness’ which is all psychologically convincing but is a story that could just as well have happened in 2000 as thirty years later. It would have been exciting to imagine how different her life could have been with continued technological advances…

It felt a little forced at times but the house plays a powerful role in the united stories. Designer Alex Eales, saves a magical moment for the final scene with a metaphorical ‘reveal’ as the house they all inhabit is finally handed on to a family free from depression. It’s a powerful and revealing glimpse of life free from darkness.
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