To what extent does the legacy of our parents influence the directions of our own lives?
It’s an examination of that question – more specifically, the heritable nature of mental illness – that lies at the centre of Anatomy of a suicide, a play by English playwright Alice Birch that was first performed at London’s Royal Court Theatre in 2017. The play is currently having its Australian premiere at Sydney’s Old Fitz, presented by Sugary Rum Productions in association with Red Line Productions.
Anatomy of a suicide is a triptych focusing on the lives of three generations of women – mother, daughter and granddaughter. As the play opens, Carol (Anna Samson) has been discharged from hospital following a failed suicide attempt. Simultaneously, we are introduced to her daughter (as an adult), Anna (Andrea Demetriades), who is grappling with drug addiction, and Anna’s daughter (also, as an adult), Bonnie, who is an emotionally-unavailable doctor.
Each of the three central women struggles to cope with their reality. In the case of the two younger women, at least, part of their unyielding pain comes from their knowledge of their mothers’ own battles with their demons and the ultimate consequences of those battles. Is there an inevitability in that trauma visiting on subsequent generations? Is it nature itself, or the lived consequences of a parent’s illness? And what can bring such a tragic cycle of events to a halt?
Rather than presenting each individual episode one after the other, Birch’s play requires the stories of each woman to play out concurrently. It means there is a substantial amount of overlapping dialogue and that the audience often has to decide where to focus their attention, but thanks to the skilful direction of Shane Anthony and a stunning cast, this doesn’t become a barrier between us and each narrative. We get to know each character and their circumstances and quickly discern what it is, aside from their blood, that binds them.
Birch’s text is beautifully written and, under Anthony’s direction, makes for a compelling and confronting theatrical presentation that forces reflection on the pressing subject of mental illness, the community’s response to it, and the intergenerational damage that it visits upon families. Clocking in at 105 minutes, this production is completely mesmeric.
Anthony and Gus Murray have designed an impressive set for this show that makes optimal use of the small Old Fitz stage space and perfectly accommodates the parallel storytelling. It’s a rendering of the family home and a hospital at once, with three glass doors used to assist us in establishing that these events are unfolding at the same location at different times. Siobhán Jett O’Hanlon’s costumes (particularly her choices for Carol) are effective in helping to signify the different eras. Veronique Benett’s lighting design creates some lovely visuals and is always on the mark.
One aspect of Anthony’s direction that warrants singling out is the elegant choreography of scene transitions. The movement that characterises scene changes here helps to maintain the fluidity of the production, assisted by music by Damien Lane. Lane’s compositions are successful in complementing and, at times, enhancing the impact of the action on stage. The track underscoring the show’s final moments is especially poignant.
The cast of 10 is a wholly committed group. Leading the cast, Samson, Demetriades and Skinner are all outstanding. Each delivers a thoughtful portrayal of a woman on the brink, struggling to understand how she moves forward and manages her life, or even her desire to live. Each performance is veritable and makes us realise that the next breath after the other can be painful. Elsewhere, Contessa Treffone, Danielle Catanzariti and Natalie Saleeba are terrific in a number of supporting guises, while the men of the production (Jack Crumlin, Teale Howie, Charles Mayer and Guy O’Grady) all lend solid support.
Anatomy of a suicide is a highly original piece that delves into difficult subject matter. It’s numbing, it’s gut-wrenching, but also hopeful in its suggestion that long-standing, seemingly insuperable cycles can be broken.
ANATOMY OF A SUICIDE – SEASON DETAILS
Venue: The Old Fitz Theatre. 129 Dowling St, Woolloomooloo
Season: Playing now until 6 July 2019
This production contains strong themes of mental health and suicide.