I’ve only done it twice, so admittedly it’s a bit of a small sample. But nonetheless I will claim with feigned authority that sitting on the front row for a Katie Mitchell show is a never-less-than-intense experience. With Cleansed, it was tongues. Unfurled, peeled out and sliced. Here, it is a different sort of tongues altogether. Words words words as someone once said.
It is of course totally appropriate that you emerge from Anatomy into the twilight. It’s a profoundly depressing piece of theatre – with a title like that you’d be alarmed if it wasn’t. It charts the legacy of a woman’s decision to kill herself down the subsequent generations – played simultaneously. It’s like a three act play happening all at once.
First off, I am absolutely fascinated by this play. Firstly, just how it looks on the page, and how Alice Birch wrote it in the first place. The sheer bloody technical skill involved in this production starts with the immaculately crafted, musical script. Birch writes the text in three columns, A, B and C. Characters sometimes talk at the same time, but often the effect is like a childlike round. When Birch claims she ‘scored’ the play, this seems absolutely accurate as there is a rhythm to it, supported by Paul Clark’s actual score, an omnipresent, ominous bass.
In the A column, on the left of the page and stage, is Carol, a woman we meet in the 1970s having just slashed her wrists. In a way, Hattie Morahan has the trickiest job in playing her – we know from the off that her character is going to kill herself, but she never makes it feel inevitable. Similarly, Kate O’Flynn – in the B column, centre stage, is as wonderful here as she was in The Glass Menagerie – fills her character with such warmth that it’s not possible to be unmoved by her own demise. Adelle Leonce plays the third daughter, Bonnie, in the C column. It has been said (and I don’t disagree) that she has the least to work with – all her history is being played out by the other actresses – but Leonce plays her character’s loneliness with a conviction that is brilliantly uncomfortable to watch. There’s a scene in the A&E department Bonnie runs. I so wanted her to just smack the other character in the scene, but instead we can see each thought pass over Leonce’s face as she deliberates and considers every option available to her, finally resigning herself to an apology.
Three narratives at once does something a bit strange. Two narratives can be followed at once fairly easily, and admittedly, Birch mostly foregrounds two narratives in each section, allowing the third to be a character by themselves, doing something without talking (lying on the floor, getting her next fix, waiting outside a door with a bottle of wine) so that the story can move on. Whenever the third strand is put into play the piece turns from a form of realism into some sort of staged poem. Words echo across the stage, characters seem to finish each other’s thoughts across time, and ideas, images recur; aquariums, babies, drugs, hospitals.
The set, a room which seems to contain nothing but its exits, with glimpses of a house through the doors, is claustrophobic and damp. The characters are cramped together even as time separates them by decades. The world is not clinical, or even chemical. It seems to be an organic space, dampened and dulled. Only in the final moments does there seem to be enough air in the space.
It’s interesting that one of the ideas of the play seems to be that suicide can be biological, a hereditary gene even, one that Bonnie is moved to eradicate. There’s no suggestion that she wants children, it’s the simple idea that she is capable of transmitting the gene that is abhorrent to her. No doubt people will write about how the play deals with suicide far more delicately and eloquently than I can, but I do think the form of the play prevents it from being a completely depressing experience – it is a funny play in parts, and an awkward one. This is no 4.48 Psychosis with its utterly bleak outlook. We are not allowed to wallow in these women’s plights, nor are we given Ophelia-like mad scenes. It is a completely serious study of suicide, but never exploitative. The title, with its allusions to surgery, seems perfect to me.
This is some of the most technically stunning writing I can recall seeing in the theatre all year, given a production by Katie Mitchell that foregrounds the poetry of the language and the uniformly excellent performances by the three main actresses. Probably the Royal Court fulfilling its mission more totally than any other time I’ve been (in my admittedly limited experience.)
Barely related anecdote:
I bought a new fountain pen recently and because I’m a leftie I’ve had to learn how to write properly again. It’s like being 8 again. Anyway. I was writing some notes when I got home after the play, and got distracted by trying to perfect the writing of a particular word. I wrote this word about thirty times – not kidding – so I could get used to the flow of the words and the ink. Except the word I was practicing on was ‘suicide.’
I wrote ‘suicide’ about thirty times on a single piece of paper. I burned it.
Photo by Stephen Cummiskey.