Hymn to self-slaughter

24 June 2017

9:00 AM

24 June 2017

9:00 AM

Anatomy of a Suicide looks at three generations of women in various phases of mental collapse. They line up on a stage that resembles a grey dungeon while sad events unfold around them. The first woman gets pregnant. The second takes heroin. The third argues with a lesbian about a fish. Their lives span several decades but their stories are presented simultaneously, and this tripartite method conceals the plain fact that the events dramatised are too flimsy to merit theatrical portrayal. A soap opera would baulk at such scenes: a druggie teenager bores a cameraman with a list of gloomy soundbites; a female wedding guest is partially seduced by a giggling gatecrasher; a patient in a hospital invites a nurse to eat some haddock.

Writer Alice Birch aims her characterisation at the chicklit crowd. All the females are sympathetic because they’re lost, miserable and a bit whiney. The males are uniformly horrible, aggressive, sentimental boors. With one exception: a black male character who seems so sweet and intelligent that he might be an honorary woman. Each change of scene involves a flash of lesbian titillation. The actresses are stripped to their bikinis by stage hands who pass them fresh costumes to climb into. Some scenes end with a massive CRUMP! and a surge of lights as if to remind us that a momentous art work is in progress. And the actors move to their new positions in super-slow motion, which gives a strong hint that This Play Deserves A Prize. It does, in a way, deserve a prize — for the most obtuse script of the year.

The dialogue has been crafted as an act of sabotage. Rather than editing and refining normal conversation to give it tension, shape and direction, Ms Birch has retained all the banal and pointless detritus of everyday speech. This trick is perfectly easy to accomplish if you have copious quantities of stage time to fill and nothing significant to say. Both conditions are met here. One wonders why the actors agreed to participate in a show that demeans their artistry and sets out, quite deliberately, to discover how thoroughly an audience can be demoralised within a two-hour timescale. And although the production takes itself very seriously, it fails to extend the same courtesy to mental illness. Suicide is treated as one of those things that sort of, you know, kind of happens, like rheumatism or bad teeth. Of the three main characters, two kill themselves and the third seeks a surgeon who can cut out her ovaries for her, as if infertility were the pathway to happiness. Anyone with mental-health problems should avoid this play. It discusses various life-ending techniques and demonstrates one of them on stage. How odd of the Royal Court to create an ode to extinction and a hymn to self-slaughter. If Isis had an Arts Council, this would be among its proudest commissions.

Emma Rice’s subtle, clever and fabulously entertaining show, Tristan and Yseult, opens with a chorus of anoraked nerds identifying themselves as ‘the love-spotters’. They belong to ‘The Club of the Unloved’ and the title is spelled out for us in vivid neon lights. Perhaps this is a sly dig at the Globe’s management, which is said to have lost patience with Ms Rice’s taste for modern dress, stage lights and electrical instruments played live. But why? This show is a triumphant blend of fun, jokes, pop tunes and satirical slapstick.

Only a couple of drawbacks. The story is short of detailed incident and the three lead actors are not the company’s best strengths. Mike Shepherd is too solemn as King Mark. Yseult, played by Hannah Vassallo, relies too much on her giggly smile and Dominic Marsh’s Tristan is short of energy and grandeur. This leaves a vacuum which the minor players rush to fill. Kyle Lima (Frocin) is an exceptional clown with a wonderfully bendy physique. He may be slim and handsome (both are drawbacks for a physical comic), but he has a terrific way of parading his sexual charisma while parodying it at the same time. Kirsty Woodward, as Whitehands, shimmies around the stage in a Jackie-O outfit making sardonic comments on the action. Best of all is Niall Ashdown as Yseult’s cross-dressing maid, Brangian. His comic gift is matched by his absolute mastery of the crowd.

The building itself helps, of course. In some mysterious way the Globe’s atmosphere seems to combine the riotous air of a cup final with the warmth and intimacy of a pub gig. Emma Rice will be a hard act to follow. Her experiments with music, lighting and on-stage acrobatics have stopped the Globe from becoming a museum, or even a mausoleum, of Shakespeare. The snag is that we have only one Globe to play with. Let’s build a replica, dedicate it to musical theatre, and put the newly elevated Dame Emma in charge.

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