ANNA at the National Theatre
The team behind ANNA is keen to make reviewing the play tricky, urging the audience to “Keep Us Safe” and prevent the show’s secrets from leaking out of the auditorium. And, honestly, that’s fair enough. It does make it a tad difficult to fully grapple with, however, given that opinions are likely to be predicated on the way the plot itself unspools.
East Berlin, 1968. The GDR rules with tapes and phone tapping as much as overt terror and propaganda. Who to trust is the question; the answer, probably no-one. In amidst this unsettling climate, Anna (Phoebe Fox) is throwing a do for her husband Hans (Paul Bazely), newly made Section Manager. Work colleagues, uninvited guests and Hans’S new boss (Max Bennett) all turn up to celebrate the promotion … and, well, let’s stop there for the sake of spoilers.
This review probably shouldn’t go any further without mentioning the show’s core gimmick. Each audience member is wearing their own pair of headphones, à la Complicite’s The Encounter. Here they are used for a more naturalistic effect than Simon McBurney’s binaural trickery. We are Anna. We hear what she hears. Every whispered comment and muttered aside in her ear. The cacophony of noise as guests pile in. The celebrations quieten when she leaves the room, replaced by the heavy breathing and frantic scuttling of panic.
This sound design, courtesy of Ben and Max Ringham, wouldn’t be half as impressive without Jon Clark’s lighting. The ember dot of a single lit cigarette. The ambient glow of a hallway light. Slowly the flat – Vicki Mortimer places the set behind a glass screen; the audience is explicitly part of the surveillance – is illuminated, the afterthought of a rushed person just getting in. The play’s tensest passages come when the lighting and sound design combine, director Natalie Abrahami overseeing a shift into full-on thriller mode.
Where things get a bit sticky is Ella Hickson’s plotting. ANNA is only just over an hour long. It asks questions about who and how we trust; love vs duty, personal vs party; what it’s like for the face of your deepest trauma to walk through the door unannounced. There’s a lot there. But though it is nicely paced early on, about a third of the way in the narrative picks up and never slows down, barreling through twists without a moment’s pause. It really could do with a bit more time for the paranoid stew to simmer before it completely boils over.
Keeping up with Hickson’s hurtling plot is Fox. We track her every movement, witness masks slip and be hastily fastened back on. Thanks to her, the emotion of what Anna is going through is constantly foregrounded – the weight of decisions she has made and those that have been thrust upon her, the wrenching convergence of past and present. Without Fox the production would be something lesser; with her, it’s an absolute ride.
Photos: Johan Persson
ANNA is at the National Theatre from 11th May until 15th June 2019. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.