Thursday, 15 June 2017

Review Anatomy Of A Suicide

Anatomy Of A Suicide
by Alice Birch

Paper Dolls

Some years ago TLT reviewed a sad but tremendously worthwhile book where the author, the late Siân Busby, traced the circumstances leading to a young woman's conviction for infanticide and its impact through generations stitching them together in a remorseless thread.

The writer. who had an equally difficult childbirth experience, was more than sympathetic to the woman convicted of a charge - killing her own baby - simultaneously classified as a crime and a mental illness and a defence to the charge of murder.  The woman was Siân Busby's great grandmother.

The book came to mind watching Alice Birch's new play about three women who, it is gradually revealed, share a family link and a predisposition towards taking their own lives. However, unlike Busby's book which discussed among other matters the legal characterisation of women, there is little of the social and economic context.

So anyone coming to Anatomy Of A Suicide expecting the title to be ironic may rapidly find themselves wrong footed by the two-hour play which, rather disturbingly to our mind, seems to want to persuade us suicide is an inheritable trait.

In Birch's bleak determinist universe for at least two generations from the 1970s through the 1990s until the more disruptive 21st century future, the outcome is inevitable.

Yet they also appear to be self-inflicted, all of which for us comes perilously close to first world problems.

It's true that, and this is not to trivialise, within the same generations of men, clothes hardly undergo radical change. While the women are like paper dolls, every now and then stripped down to their underwear and re-dressed by others, as in those days before computers when we girlies lovingly snipped on the dotted line and clothed such dolls with a variety of  pre-printed paper skirts, blouses and dresses.

Yet the problems outside their psychological state seem practically non existent - 1970s' Carol (Hattie Morahan) has no worries about her financial independence or her daughter Anna (Katie O'Flynn) other later financial anomalies preventing parity with husbands, which surely has implications even for the experiment in communal living in which she dabbles with her partner.  

The three lives do run side by side as in a split cinema screen or church triptych, with sentences and dilemmas counterpointing each other like an undulating musical ensemble piece. There is a light touch theme of property and jobs in relation to the women and by the final scenes it is partly through these that a cycle seems to be broken.

There is also no doubting the intricate skill shown by writer Alice Birch and director Katie Mitchell in interlacing the three shifts of times stitching together the three women, model-like Carol, Goth Anna and more clinical Bonnie (Adelle Leonce).

Anna played by O'Flynn (last seen, somewhat intriguingly, as Laura in Tennessee Williams' The Glass Menagerie) was distinctive for us, both for her performance and because her actions mark a more seismic change in the family.

But we can't pretend that this story, played out on Alex Eales's concrete gray set, held us for the full two hours without an interval where everyone outside the trio seemed so well-meaning, if misguided. Maybe there was a subtle political and historical thread (we're not sure), but, frankly, we're grasping at straws here.

All this  appeared to us to be buying into, rather than dispelling, a secular pseudo-scientific medicalised view of woman's biological destiny, even with the final gentle rupture.

Maybe also the title led us almost to expect an analysis through women's bodies and minds of a changing anatomy of Britain. However, if so, our pre-conceived notions, like the paper dress with tabs fitting perfectly the doll, were matched by the pre-conceived notions in the play and it's an amber light.

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