Anna at the National Theatre review: A brilliant play about the Stasi that makes you wear headphones
It’s Stasi-era East Germany and a young woman prepares for a dinner party while a hidden group of shadowy men and women wearing headphones listen in to her every move. The twist? You’re one of them.
Anna casts the audience as collaborators in this tale of a young woman caught up in a surveillance operation reminiscent of The Lives of Others. We eavesdrop on her every breath and sigh, gazing into the glass box – almost a literal fish bowl – inside of which the action takes place.
Actor Phoebe Fox wears biaural microphones, meaning we hear as her character does – when she moves to the kitchen, the noise of the party becomes muffled background chatter; when a character leans close to deliver an aside, the words are whispered directly into our ears.
There’s a pleasing ASMR quality to the audio, with the quiet rustling of papers or satisfying click of a cigarette lighter sending tingles down your spine. But any sense of ease is soon unpicked as the life of the person you're spying on spirals out of control.
The story twists and writhes like a classic spy novel. On the surface it looks at the consequences of totalitarianism and mass surveillance – the dinner party, we learn, is to celebrate the promotion of Anna’s husband Hans after his boss was “disappeared” – but a more personal story emerges as political thriller segues into psychosexual drama, at which point the bounds of plausibility are somewhat stretched.
But the actors sell it so well. Fox in particular is excellent as Anna, who attempts to put a brave face on her crippling anxiety for the sake of her husband.
Even without my praise, the team behind this play should be enough to get you through the door – it’s penned by Oil and The Writer scribe Ella Hickson, one of the hottest young playwrights in the country, and directed by Natalie Abrahami, whose recent work includes the wonderful Machinal at the Almeida.
Both have a bent towards dark, psychological dramas about women unravelling in ruthless and unfair circumstances. This riff on that formula leads to one of the strangest and most remarkable plays of the year.