The sins of the father revisited on the son — it’s a stage staple that tracks back to Ancient Greece. From Captain Alving in Ibsen’s “Ghosts” to Arthur Miller’s arms-dealing Joe Keller in “All My Sons,” a man’s acts live on. Feminist playwright (“Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.”) and screenwriter (“Lady Macbeth”) Alice Birch offers an alternative in this chilly triptych, now play at the Royal Court Theater. Not once, but twice, a mother’s trauma rebounds on her daughter. Mental illness becomes a baton passed between three generations: a frazzled 1970s housewife, a 1990s riot girl, a detached doctor in 2033. Katie Mitchell’s clinical staging forces us to watch forensically, sifting for clues about causality. Is this nature, nurture or social structure?
Birch splits the stage in three, so that three women, decades apart, appear side by side. In 1971, Carol (Hattie Morahan) emerges from hospital with her wrists wrapped in bandages, her husband berating her for ruining the floorboards. In 1997, Anna (Kate O’Flynn) wobbles on her feet, off her bloodied head, with one arm in a sling, as a male nurse checks her over and ticks her off. In 2033, a third woman holds her bleeding hand, a fishhook dug into the palm – but it’s her expressionless doctor, Bonnie (Adelle Leonce), who assumes importance.
These women couldn’t be more different, and yet their individual stories echo each other – sometimes exactly, as phrases and gestures ripple through time. Carol sits at home, alone, infantilized by her stern, shambolic husband (Paul Hilton), smoking at the kitchen table, a child crying somewhere in the house. Anna rampages off the rails, a laddette with a heroin addiction partying through the millennium. Bonnie, meanwhile, shuts everyone out. She might seem the most sorted of the three, but she’s not really. All three incur mental health problems of some form or another: a mix of anxiety, depression and detachment.
It’s only gradually that we realise that they’re related — three generations of the same family. As each individual narrative unfolds, it adds a little more context to the next. One woman’s life encompasses the other’s childhood, and so explains the issues they face in adulthood. Eerily, you intuit their deaths before they take place. Each is strangely absent from their daughter’s life — and yet, equally, ever-present.
It’s a beautifully organised play, an elegant information overload. Birch is an exacting writer; “Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again” proved her precision with language, but here, as in her recent film “Lady Macbeth,” she lets small slices of life assume momentous significance. As Carol smokes a sly cigarette at a children’s party, Anna crashes into a drug-induced coma. Bonnie stands outside a birthday bash, bottle in hand. Many of the micro-scenes have a painterly quality, a stark, unsentimental beauty.
Set designer Alex Eales encases the women in a grey concrete cell so that the world seems oddly absent, and only James Farncombe’s articulate lighting gives a sense of place. Melanie Wilson’s soundscapes swim around like underwater echoes. Between scenes, as the years pass, the women stand, still as mannequins, as castmates undress and reclothe them. Fashions change, women don’t, nor society neither — any shifts are merely superficial. Birch’s play is, among other things, a history of the care system. Patrician doctors become scrubbed-up careworkers, but the treatment prescribed is still the same: electric shock therapy.
As you’d expect of the meticulous Mitchell, all three women are played with extraordinary clarity. Morahan wears a faraway frown as Carol, her eyes wide and watery, while O’Flynn chews her words as if permanently brain-fuzzed and physically discombobulated. Leonce plays Bonnie with a clean-cut aloofness that almost borders on dissociation, as if to complete the cycle.
There’s something schematic in a play that works entirely through patterns. Birch asks us to compare and contrast, but the triptych form can feel like the “complete-the-sequence” section of an IQ test: A, B, ?. A mother who feels too little produces a daughter who feels too much. Her daughter, in turn, retreats to a numb silence. Sarah Blenkinsop’s costumes stress the point: Carol in red, Anna in green and black, Bonnie in white with hints of red. The driving concept is too close to the surface here, the causal chain too certain to ring true. That each woman is so of-their-own-era only exacerbates the problem. All three feel emblematic, rather than idiosyncratic individuals, and it can feel like Birch’s thesis is leading her play.
That’s a small grumble, though, in an otherwise unflinching examination of motherhood and mental health, articulated with a sharp sense of theater.