A Tech – Savvy Spy Thriller – Anna by Ella Hickson.
The National Theatre has done it again, challenging theatrical expectations and conventions with the intelligent Cold War spy thriller, Anna – an innovative collaboration between writer Ella Hickson and talented sound-designers Ben and Max Ringham, slickly directed by Natalie Abrahami.
Vicki Mortimer’s elegant modernist set is sealed inside a giant glass box, a visible and transparent division between spectators and actors.
Anna uses sound and listening to brilliant, disquieting effect. Each seat in the Dorfman Theatre is equipped with its own audio headset, which audience members are invited to wear throughout the show. The stereo soundscape cleverly directs audience attention, switching audio focus across simultaneous action inside the apartment, eerily zoning in on some conversations and drowning out others – creating the strange sensation of hearing snippets of dialogue both on set and from behind closed doors. This device is used to remarkable effect, slowly building dramatic tensions – very naturalistic and at the same time quite uncanny. We become eavesdroppers, listening in on footsteps, whispers, singing, retching, breathing and kisses – all experienced directly inside our heads.
Hickson’s Anna was influenced by Michael Frayn’s essay ‘Capital of Nowhere’, written during his trip to both sides of the Berlin Wall in the early 70s. The narrative is set over one evening in 1968, in the midst of the communist dictatorship of the DDR.
Glamorous Hans (the excellent Paul Bazely) and Anna (played with assured, mounting intensity by Phoebe Fox) are living the dream, and the couple is celebrating Hans’s promotion with a gathering at their high-rise apartment in Leninplatz, East Berlin.
What transpires is a complex thriller, full of twists and turns, which uncovers deep-rooted suspicions and ghosts from the past. Hans’s boss Christian Neumann – played with a suave icy chill by the Aryan looking Max Bennett – is recognized by Anna as her childhood friend Max Becker, who betrayed her trust at the end of the Second World War with tragic repercussions.
In addition to Christian, the party scene introduces elderly neighbor Elena Hillenbrand (the marvelous Diana Quick), whose husband has been arrested, and other colleagues young and old. We never get a real insight into this group of individuals, but they are a brilliant supporting cast, slipping in and out of focus over the course of the evening.
Set in the shadow of the DDR, Anna provides a wonderful metaphor for the ‘Big Brother’ world in which we find ourselves today. It’s a sharp look at the way big data and surveillance are changing our notions of privacy and increasing our paranoia.
Here is human intercourse by way of power, coercion, collusion and attrition. With its weird, intrusive audio-world, Anna isolates and implicates, making voyeurs of us all. Natalie Abrahami has achieved a highly polished and astute production which in the space of 65 minutes grips the audience and keeps them in suspense until the very end……. Shhhh…I cannot say a word!
London SE1 9PX
Also running at the National Theatre is Small Island which is highly recommended. Check our review.
ANNA is in the Dorfman at the National Theatre until 15th June.
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