Mothers and daughters trapped in a cycle of despair

ANATOMY OF A SUICIDE ★★★★

Old Fitz Theatre, June 14

Anatomy of a Suicide presents an unbroken cycle of despair.

Each year more than 65,000 Australians attempt suicide. Behind each is a tale of anguish.

Little wonder then that suicide and mental illness have come to the front of theatre programmers' minds.

The stories unfold concurrently in this inventive play.Credit:Kate Williams

Alice Birch's play comes on the heels of Belvoir’s Every Brilliant Thing. While both focus on a terrible legacy handed from mother to daughter, this latest play is as bleak as the earlier work was ultimately life-affirming.

Carol, Anna and Bonnie are mother, daughter and granddaughter. Their stories are set in three different times – suggestive of the 1960s, 1980s and present day – in which all three are young women of roughly the same age.

Housewife Carol has attempted suicide as the play opens. She’s encouraged to have a child to fill her dark inner world.

Anna is a junkie who cleans herself up. She forms a relationship, marries and becomes pregnant and it seems she just might set her life on track.

Bonnie is a doctor, but so emotionally coiled that intimacy sees her shut down almost to the point of catatonia.

In this highly inventive play, the three stories unfold concurrently. It is like watching three plays at once. There’s much overlapping dialogue, Caryl Churchill style. Words and phrases uttered by one character are picked up by another.

This simultaneous storytelling is an unusual form, but it well serves the play’s subject matter. It suggests that what happens to one woman echoes down the generations; an eternal present in which the corrosive past lingers.

Our focus moves around the stage, as we zoom in and out of the three stories. But dwell too long on one woman’s story and you miss the detail of the others. This is frustrating at times – I found myself hungry to settle on one story – nonetheless, you get the gist. The clarity of Shane Anthony’s direction means there’s no confusion as to who is who or what is going on.

He divides the stage in three, and his set [co-designed with Gus Murray] is dominated by the three glass doors of the family house in which the three women have lived.

Anna Samson (Carol), Andrea Demetriades (Anna) and Kate Skinner (Bonnie) convincingly create three vastly different but troubled women. This is a 10-member cast with much doubling of minor roles. Among them Danielle Catanzariti and Contessa Treffone stand out.

The ambiguous ending leaves a glimmer of hope, but it is faint indeed in an otherwise unbroken cycle of despair.

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