As odd theatrical experiences go, sitting in a deliberately two thirds empty auditorium wearing large headphones, surrounded by other people also wearing large headphones, listening to someone calmly saying ‘left ear, right ear’ in your left and right ear respectively is truly right up there.
Welcome to the theatrical world of ANNA (their caps, not mine) the latest production in the National Theatre’s small and adaptable Dorfman space. The action in ANNA all takes place on a traditional end on stage, with the addition of a literally soundproof glass wall dividing it from the auditorium. The audience can hear nothing, except through the aforementioned large headphones which link up to a microphone attached to lead actress Phoebe Fox. We can only hear what her character hears - nothing else.
This is such a unique way of staging a show that I confess I was concerned it would just be a gimmick. It is definitively not, not for this show. Because the actual meat of ANNA, if you will, is a spy thriller by playwright Ella Hickson, set in East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall. A time, of course, when spying and listening in on everyone around you was a fact of life. This show comes with a plea for no spoilers, so as for Hickson’s play all I will say is this: it’s a cracking thriller, wonderfully well plotted and written. It’s twisty, turny, creepy, threatening and very clever indeed. I didn’t see a single one of it’s major plot points coming until it arrived. It’s also flat out great entertainment. The headphones and associated technical wizardry would be entirely wasted, and would be completely the gimmick I feared they might be, if it weren’t. It would work as a show without them.
But with them it’s truly elevated. Having a spy thriller where the audience are, in effect, eavesdropping is a fantastic idea and director Nathalie Abraham’s production nails it utterly. Teaming up with sound design geniuses (genii?) Ben and Max Ringham to deliver the technical wizardry, the overall effect isn’t just a remarkably clear soundtrack (for about the first ten minutes I was convinced that every ambient noise on stage was somewhere behind me) it’s also to fully drag the audience into the action. To make us complicit, which becomes more uncomfortable as the play unravels. Vicki Mortimer’s clever set also ensures that we can’t always see everything that’s going on, making sure that the audio is even more important. Jon Clark’s lighting looks great too, especially during a sequence where fireworks (literal) are introduced.
The cast is also excellent and clearly invested in the concept they’re working with, the weirdness of which I can only imagine (though it must be nice not to be able to hear the inevitable audience coughing). It’s difficult to say much here without giving too much of the plot away, but there is lovely work on that stage. Phoebe Fox is brilliant as the titular character giving a performance of huge depth and complexity. Diana Quick joins her in another fantastically well realised turn. Max Bennett has some of the more difficult work to do but is brilliantly charismatic. It says much for the latter two in that brief list that I rated their performances even though I could often only see them.
ANNA is such a great little show. It’s a curiosity, certainly, and it is worth seeing for the technical bravado alone. But it’s also an absolute belter of a thriller too, something which I don’t think it’s getting enough credit for. And the cherry on the cake? It’s 65 minutes long. I mean come on, what have you got to lose?
ANNA is in the Dorfman at the NT until 15th June.
I sat in the stalls for this one (first time doing so for an end on show in this space and to be honest it wasn’t that great - where are my arm rests?) in C10 which cost £45. More than I would usually pay, worth noting that seating is limited to the third of the theatre directly in front of the stage to make the production work technically (I assume) and so properly cheap seats are very limited, but worth it.