One Woman’s Stand Against The Machine: Anna At Dorfman Theatre

Anna, Dorfman Theatre ★★★☆☆

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One Woman’s Stand Against The Machine: Anna At Dorfman Theatre Anna, Dorfman Theatre 3
© Johan Persson

Audiences are ever in the role of spy in the theatre, whether their presence is acknowledged by those on stage or not. But the National Theatre’s new production of Anna, set in the hidden microphone-laden East Germany of 1968, makes this dynamic overt, placing the viewer squarely in the shadows of a stake-out, complete with earphones to monitor their target’s innermost nuances.

© Johan Persson

As the heroine, an ordinary if ambitious young woman in a world where people only advance through shadow-play, Anna — performed with subtle stealth by Phoebe Fox — is caught between the demands of a paranoid, doctrinaire society and the rare chance at advancement to the dizzying heights of a one-bedroom apartment in a concrete tower.

© Johan Persson

Her clueless husband Hans, in a credible turn by Paul Bazely, willingly adopts blinders to secure their new-found fortune, which comes fully equipped with a temperamental stove, the latest mod lighting gear and — wonder of wonders — a record player with a headphones jack.

© Johan Persson

Such treasures, recreated in exacting period detail by set and costume designer Vicki Mortimer, might motivate many East Germans of the time to sell their mother down the river. In this case, the lucky couple must merely put on the act of praising their new boss’s brilliance at a cocktail party in their fabulous new pad, alongside co-workers, a nosy neighbour and friends. How hard could that be in a world where one false word could cost you your life?

© Johan Persson

Ella Hickson’s script is imbued with the fog of cynicism, fear and exhaustion that authentic East bloc stories invariably convey. Her wit and guile in setting out her chess game are remarkable. Indeed, the play’s background material, including a detailed design catalogue, luminous essays from the period, and a series of talks to be held 5-6 June, add much depth and relevance.

© Johan Persson

What’s more, Anna’s technical design cleverly takes us into the protagonist’s secret world, thanks to the brilliant sound design of Ben and Max Ringham, who co-created the work with Hickson. Yet the performance, staged as it is through a filter of sorts, keeps its observers just a little too much at a remove. Although the cast put on their best party manners literally in hopes of surviving the night, we never quite manage to feel the urgency or the desperation we should.

Awkward, theatrical blocking further takes us out of what should be the compelling story of a spy who came in from the cold. Praiseworthy for its thorough research and political context, the story of one woman’s stand against the machine is worth taking in but seems to have just missed the last flight to the heights of Cold War drama.

Anna, Dorfman Theatre, National Theatre, London SE1 9PX. Tickets from £21, until 15 June 2019.

Last Updated 23 May 2019