Sophie Adnitt reviews Ella Hickson's new play Anna now playing in the Dorman Theatre at the National Theatre, London.
National Theatre – Dorfman
Here’s an unsettling thought that Anna at the National Theatre Dorfman can’t help but prompt – are we ever really alone? Are we ever not, in some sense, not being observed? Despite the historical setting of Ella Hickson’s new play, the idea of being constantly monitored has modern resonance, wrapped up in a short, snappy, but seriously impressive production.
1968, East Berlin. Anna Weber (Phoebe Fox) is throwing a dinner party for her husband Hans’ workmates to celebrate his recent promotion. The otherwise domestic problems Anna runs into – trying to cajole Hans (Paul Bazely) into a clean shirt, fetching nibbles, humouring his over-friendly friend Dieter (Michael Gould in a surprisingly affecting role), dealing with the unwelcome presence of elderly Elena (Diana Quick) – are underscored by something greater and more unnerving; Anna is being watched. A shadowy figure flees her apartment early on, casting a shadow over the evening and instantly creating an environment of fear.
Vicki Mortimer’s set is encased in thick glass, allowing the audience to observe the events of the play through this window. With a pair of headphones on every seat, the audience of Anna become surveillance operatives, watching the inhabitants of the flat as they dance, drink, flirt and argue. A superb sound design courtesy of Ben and Max Ringham (the play is essentially designed around it) immerses the audience into the world of the play, the early chaos of the party overwhelmingly noisy, voices dulling behind closed doors as Anna moves away. When characters whisper into Anna’s ear it’s right there in our own ears – no pantomime stage whispers here. Even when she’s alone on stage we hear Anna huff and sigh, mutter and hum to herself. As a concept and a gimmick it’s pulled off to perfection. It’s voyeuristic and uncomfortable – ideally suited for the subject matter of the play. We feel as invaded and uncomfortable as Anna, unable to escape her guests and their pressures (plus, on a slightly more trivial note, this technique has the added bonus of drowning out audience sniffs, coughs and rogue digital watches).
The cast are all very good, with Max Bennet as Hans’ intimidating new boss, doing a chillingly recognisable turn as a threat who everyone else sees as charming. But the show revolves around Phoebe Fox as Anna, and rightly so. Anna’s rapid descent into confusion and erratic behaviour is expertly handled by Fox, and as she dashes, panicked, through the flat in her red dress you seek her out in the crowd every time.
The plot is unpredictable to the last; every time you think you know where things are going, Hickson’s script thrills in proving you wrong and the tension never drops. There’s so much that can be drawn from scraps of overheard conversation and chats between friends that artfully allure to previous events. Natalie Abrahami’s direction ensures that even if we can’t hear someone, their actions make it all too clear what they’re saying and all these assumptions make the story all the more intriguing.
There are moments where Hickson’s writing threatens to veer into soap opera territory, but something – this excellent cast perhaps, or the breakneck direction (at 65 minutes straight through, things hurtle along) – always pulls it back at the last second. Consistently gripping, Anna is a superb spy drama, blessed with a dazzling central performance.