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‘Anna’ review

  • Theatre, Immersive
  • 2 out of 5 stars
Anna, National Theatre
© Johan PerssonPhoebe Fox (Anna)

Time Out says

2 out of 5 stars

Ella Hickson’s flashy East Germany-set thriller is slick but hollow

Set at a dinner party in communist East Berlin, Ella Hickson’s thriller ‘Anna’ is pacy and twisty and clever and full of ingenious headphone-administered shocks and starts. Unfortunately, I didn’t believe in any of it for a minute.

I didn’t believe that these people were from East Berlin, because they talk like they’re in the plummiest and most resolutely English kind of radio drama, with the odd break into German feeling like an unaccountable lapse.

I didn’t believe in the setting: designer Vicki Mortimer has carefully sourced a room full of GDR-era modernist design classics, but the show’s most illuminating bits of period detail are the pendant lamps.

And most of all, I didn’t believe in the story, which revolves around a ridiculously elaborate and emotionally cruel plot to root out a West-loving traitor.

In unlikely company with both ‘Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’ and ‘The Mousetrap’, ‘Anna’ ends with the cast telling you not to spill the show’s secrets, so I guess I’d better limit myself to explaining the premise. Which is that Anna’s husband’s new boss, Christian Neumann (Max Bennett), is coming over for dinner, along with a motley collection of colleagues who are trying to curry favour with him. But before the first glasses of schnapps are drunk, Anna realises that Christian is (or looks very like) the man who was responsible for her mother being raped and murdered by Russian soldiers.

Played by Phoebe Fox, Anna’s uncertainty is intriguing to watch, breaking out in subtle wobbles in her voice or reeling through the staid party. The stage is fronted by a giant wall of soundproof glass, and sound design by Ben and Max Ringham sees that the actors’ words are dripped into the audience’s ears through headphones. This is incredibly effective: like Stasi surveillance mikes, the audience’s headphones pick up everything, from the clip of a bitten nail to the conversations between Anna and her bewildered husband, getting a whispered crash course in the trauma she hid from him.

But like the double-crossing plot twists that follow, this cleverness ultimately feels a bit empty. Anna and Christian talk about their childhood experiences of sexual violence in a way that feels both unexplored and unjustified. It adds clumsy shade to a story that’s not really interested in the less interior-design-mag-friendly sides of GDR life: the psychological impact of living in a surveillance state, the texture and detail of how Soviet ideology fed into people’s mindsets, the sense of community that fed ‘Ostaglia’ (nostalgia for East Germany) in the years after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

Natalie Abrahami’s production feels polished and flashy: a machine that works, but holds us at arm’s length from these characters. You could probably read something about Britain’s relationship with Europe into all this, into the distance we’re willing to put between us and the continent’s recent history. It certainly feels weird that the first National Theatre play to be set in continental Europe in years uses its setting as little more than window dressing for a hi-tech thriller that delivers shocks, not insight.

Written by
Alice Saville


£15-£50. Runs 1hr 5min (no interval)
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