Anatomy of a Suicide is a play that floored me.
Written by British playwright Alice Birch, and directed by Shane Anthony, the play is a tale of mothers and daughters and intergenerational suffering. The producing team of Anthony and Gus Murray, who were behind the play’s successful 2019 season at the Fitz, have brought this stunning and overwhelming show back to Sydney and you shouldn’t miss it.
The lights go up in the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre, and we’re at a hospital. We meet Carol (Anna Houston), a 1970s housewife who has just attempted suicide. Then, Carol’s adult daughter Anna (Anna Samson) joins her mother on stage, except she’s not with her mother—she’s in the 1990s at hospital after a drug-fuelled bender. Then, Bonnie (Kate Skinner), Anna’s adult daughter and Carol’s granddaughter, joins her family on stage. Except she’s not with them—she’s a doctor in the 2030s, working in the emergency department.
These three women, separated by time but bound by blood, stay on stage together for most of the play. So begins this complicated, engrossing and fascinating story of motherhood, depression and suffering, which is one of the most impressive works of theatre I’ve seen this year.
Birch’s script is complex, ambitious, and tightly constructed, albeit very bleak. For almost all of the play, these three women and their stories of motherhood exist on stage simultaneously, defying realism in favour of compelling and abstract storytelling. Birch boldly raises big questions about fate, mental illness and intergenerational trauma. She provocatively asks the audience to consider the extent to which mental illness is inherited, and whether its possible for suicide to ‘run in the family’. It’s confronting and thought provoking—exactly what good theatre should be— and you won’t necessarily agree with Birch’s answers.
The play’s intense themes and complicated structure pose a huge challenge for Anthony, and he pulls it off brilliantly. The three simultaneous scenes, all equally dramatic and well-performed, often have an overwhelming effect, which can make it difficult to focus on any one scene at all. Although I believe this to be an intentional artistic choice on Birch’s part, it does make for a slightly stressful viewing experience, as viewers worry they might miss key lines and moments if they watch the wrong scene.
Samson’s performance of a daughter haunted by her mother’s suicide, while struggling with drug addiction and depression, was the highlight of the show. The other nine members of the ensemble were all uniformly talented, although I felt a bit uncomfortable watching an all-white cast in 2022, especially when there were so many characters and opportunities to cast more diversely.
A core theme of Birch’s script is the emotional power of place and memory. What happens to a family home when something traumatic occurs in its rooms? Should you sell it and move on? Move away and repress the memories? Or try to live with it?
Anthony and Murray’s chosen set design—the family home— is a simple, elegant and timeless structure, that keeps the focus on the text and the storytelling. Morgan Moroney’s lighting design shines dynamically through the full-length windows which divide the front half of the stage. The set is a timeless blank canvas, which means that the varying time periods are dictated through performance, dialogue, and Siobhan Jett O’Hanlon’s effective costumes.
Anatomy of a Suicide is one of the best plays I’ve seen this year. Although undoubtedly devastating, Shane Anthony has directed a thought-provoking production that grabs your attention from the start and doesn’t let you go.
Anatomy of a Suicide runs at the Seymour Centre’s Reginald Theatre until the 29th of October. Tickets can be purchased here.