ANNA at the National Theatre: Tense and Disorientating

Anthony Walker-Cook reviews ANNA at the National Theatre, which employs some unusual techniques to emphasise the constant surveillance that came with living in 1960s Berlin.

Watching a show in a theatre can be an incredibly intimate event. If you’ve purchased a cheaper ticket, this can be still be achieved when sitting ‘in the gods’ at the back of a theatre through (paradoxically) microphones. ANNA, now at the National Theatre, completely turns the table by having the audience wear headphones throughout the performance, only through which can the action on stage be heard. Created by Ella Hickson, and Ben and Max Ringham, ANNA is a tightly produced commentary on power dynamics.

It is 1968 in East Berlin. Anna Weber (Phoebe Fox) is preparing a party for her husband, Hans (Paul Bazely), who has just received a promotion a work. Once the party begins, an encounter with Christian Neumann (Max Bennett) brings her past hauntingly into the present. Given the historical moment, betrayal, espionage and spying on your neighbour means everyone keep secrets. But, at the request of the cast of the show, that’s all a synopsis I’m going to provide.

To have one of your senses completely dictated by someone else is an unnerving experience, especially when the speaking character is out of the room whilst all the other cast are on stage speaking. Whispers are projected right into your ear and snatches of conversations happening around the stage are caught only for a moment. We hear Anna loudly being sick in an unseen toilet or characters breathing during quiet scenes. It’s amazing how disorientating the effect of this technological choice is. 

The National have recently put on numerous productions where the set is a cross section of a house or room. Anna Fleischle’s design in Home I’m Darling depicted the entire home (a ‘gingham paradise’ as one character called it) of Judy and Johnny, whilst Gloria’s living room was rendered with all the home comforts by Rajha Shakiry inNine Night. Mortimer’s flat is tastefully decorated in muted greys and browns, but with a glass screen between the cast and audience.

Phoebe Fox in ANNA.

Of all the stages at the National, the Dorfman is the only one where sight lines can be obscured. But it is also a highly versatile space: the middle pit can be used for whatever purpose the writer or director need. For ANNA, seats only in the centre can be purchased, meaning the audience will only look straight on to Vicki Mortimer’s set. This, combined with the glass wall, means that ANNA makes the audience uncomfortably feel like they are watching either a sitcom or an interrogation. Both are apt suggestions.

Natalie Abrahami’s direction keeps this a tense and swerving production, and at only an hour long the piece flows quickly (though, perhaps, too quickly: I would have happily watched more). Fox is a compelling and unstable lead, but her relationship with Weber does not quite manage to fully come across. Bennett is an unsettling antagonist. The problem with using the headsets, however, is that the rest of the ensemble are not fully developed, their relationships quite literally muted during the show.

We live in a world where surveillance systems are everywhere. Over the recent years, political events have ensured that George Orwell’s 1984 continues to hold a tight grip over our conception of Big Brother and the fascination with what it would be like to live in a totalitarian society. ANNA makes audiences confront this sense of paranoia head on but presents very few answers. The walls, especially when they are made of glass, certainly do have ears.  


ANNA is at the National Theatre until the 15th June.    

Photograph credit: Johan Persson.

Anthony Walker-Cook is a PhD candidate at UCL and is the Theatre editor for London Student. His interests include theatre adaptation, early modern drama, classical myths made modern and all things eighteenth century. For more information please contact: @AntWalker_Cook

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