The Theatreguide.London Review
Of A Suicide
Royal Court Theatre Summer 2017D
More an image-driven theatrical poem than a linear narrative, Alice Birch's play explores a particular kind of despair through isolated moments and allusions.
Its success will depend on the cumulative effect of such moments and on the resonance of what are sometimes the personal and opaque symbolic vocabularies of the playwright and of director Katie Mitchell. With its central characters all being female, I have no doubt women will respond to it more fully and viscerally than men.
Despite its singular title the play actually looks at three women, the three leading actresses each inhabiting a separate front-to-back strip of the stage and never interacting. At times one or another holds our attention, while at others two or three scenes occur simultaneously, to the extent of conversations echoing each other.
We gradually deduce that they are mother (Hattie Morahan), daughter (Kate O'Flynn) and granddaughter (Adelle Leonce), with the remainder of the cast playing various husbands, lovers, doctors and Everyone Else.
The three women are all seen as adults and therefore inhabit different timelines, and projected dates show that their stories move forward at different speeds, the first and third each covering several years while the middle one barely inches ahead.
In the course of the play all three attempt suicide at least once, and two succeed in a later attempt. All are hospitalised repeatedly and at least two undergo electroconvulsive therapy. Two have unhappy marriages, two suffer postnatal depression, one goes through serious drug addiction, two at least flirt with lesbianism.
All are in some way bound to the family home, either as refuge or burden, giving that setting a strong if unclear symbolic meaning.
Other elements in the writing and staging are also meant to carry some symbolic weight, though again not always a clear one – why, for example are conversations manipulated to allow all three to make seemingly irrelevant references to fishing and fish hooks?
And why does the director turn the costume changes into formal onstage rituals, the other members of the cast undressing and re-dressing the three passive women with synchronised choreography – especially when there is rarely any plot need for the change at all?
Depending on your individual response it can be either intriguing or frustrating to be repeatedly signalled that something is being communicated but not what it is.
But then a degree of mystery is part of the play's mode. Neither the playwright, the director or the three actresses attempt to explain the source of the women's depression. It is a given, and the play merely observes how it affects them.
Each is as brave as she can be in attempting to maintain some control of her life – one determines to stay alive as long as her daughter needs her and no longer, while another seeks out sterilisation to end the family curse – but two are ultimately defeated while the third is left with future uncertain.
Director Katie Mitchell does little to fill in the gaps or draw us into the characters, encouraging slightly-removed-from-self performances that may be psychologically accurate but keep us at arm's length, and emphasising the theatricality of the presentation through such devices as the costume changes and moments of slow-motion action.
What does the play tell us about suicidal depression in women? Less an 'anatomy', with the implication of close analysis and explanation, than a string of fragmentary and disconnected external observations, it may still affect some in the audience with the shock of recognition.
For others, being invited to look but not guided to understand may be too disappointing.
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