Wednesday, 18 December 2019

Anna - Theatre Review

What: Anna
When: 17 - 22 December 2019
Where: La Mama Courthouse
Written and performed by: Bagryana Popov
Directed by: John Bolton
Set by: Lara Weeks
Lighting by: Bronwyn Pringle
Stage managed by: Julian Adams
Bagryana Popov - photo by Justyn Koh
Bagryana Popov is one of the heavy weights in the Melbourne theatre scene and leading into Christmas she brings us her searing tale of secrecy, intrigue, and paranoia. Anna is playing at La Mama Courthouse for the next week.

Anna is not the cheerful, snow and laughter filled December tale we are used to being sold at this time of year. Instead, she takes us back to post WWII Bulgaria and a people smothered by governmental secrecy and betrayal. A community where citizens are used against other citizens to wheedle out discontent, and where there is no sanctity in marriage or family. This is the world of Popov's childhood.

Why tell Anna's story now? Perhaps Popov has been seeing a corollary between our current government and it's policy of secrecy and under scrutinized legislative activity? If she doesn't, I certainly do. I should mention this is in no way indicated in the play. It is just my own musings...

Popov's doctoral thesis (2013) was about embodied experience and memory of a totalitarian regime. There is nothing to indicate Anna was a real person, but Popov has done extensive research to back up this story in it's ideas and representations, and she intertwines these moments with real fairy tales to reinforce the understanding that memory is experiential, even when environment is factual.

Anna is a woman, a mother, a wife, living in Bulgaria in the 1950's. It is interesting to note that history sees this era as a time when Bulgaria begins to emerge from it's extreme totalitarianism, but as with all situations, the darkness has to come before the light, so Popov's tale is about those darkest of times which came first.

Anna has a philandering husband who is engaged is some nefarious activities she wants to know nothing about. Hyper-vigilance is the normal state in this community and for good reason. She has a young daughter and writes children's stories. (Popov uses her favourite real stories by the author Aveskos).

The State decide to use the husband's affair as leverage to get Anna to spy on her husband and they promise her work as an incentive. As is the way of things, once her job is done she is tossed aside and her descent into madness begins. But remember that old adage - just because you are paranoid doesn't mean they aren't out to get you!

Popov is a good actor and she slips between an array of characters with mastery yet without fanfare. It is amazing to see her do it, and when she is in presentational mode (such as the plotting scene) the play is lively and intriguing. This is less true when Popov is being representational. I felt little connection or sympathy for Anna because she demonstrated little softness or complexity and emotions such as crying were just too fake for me. She felt 'acted'.

The play would have been stronger if we saw Anna finding moments - however brief - of joy and love. Perhaps the story book moments would have been enough if we could have seen her really enjoy the characters - a bit like Renee Zellweger in Miss Potter...? Instead these moments were crammed with Popov playing with tiny puppets and mechanical toys which are not big enough to be stage worthy in my opinion. I know there is a school of thought which says it is interesting to watch actors engaged in minute and detailed activity but I am not of that leaning. If you love that stuff, you will really like this play.

Week (set) and Pringle(lights) work together to build a wonderfully suspenseful world. Week has built looming filing cabinets which take us to the world of imposing architecture loved by dictators, and reinforce the idea this show is about a child's memory - a small creature in a terrifyingly big world. Surrounded by these overwhelming symbols of bureaucracy, Pringle has partnered this with looming shadows, and deep pockets of darkness found in the dark of night and a world of hidden agendas.

The biggest disappointment is the whimpering end. Anna descends into a miasma of paranoia but the play, the acting, and even the lighting do not reinforce this confusion of lost boundaries and logic and order. Overall, Bolton has directed a very stilted performance which is disappointing given Popov's background in choreography, and he fails to create a dynamic tempo across the show - and particularly towards the end - which would give the audience stimulus and triggers to support the narrative arc of the play. In a play written in a narrative style, as this one is, life needs to be found in more than just the text. Perhaps the failure to include a sound design was a mistake?

Anna is an intriguing story, and in an Australia which is teetering so close to totalitarianism as we are right now it is good to be reminded who or what the real enemy is. The world is in danger and we need to remember the lessons of the past. Anna helps us do that.

3 Stars

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