Anna at the National Theatre review ****

Anna

National Theatre Dorfman, 11th June 2019

After a false start, (the indolent Tourist failed to wake up in time on the appointed on-sale day and this sold out fast), a couple of returns were secured so it was off to the Dorfman with MS in tow for Ella Hickson’s latest play. With high expectations given Ms Hickson’s last two outings, The Writer and Oil, both at the Almeida. Expectations that were, largely, met.

I say Ella Hickson but without the sound wizards of Ben and Max Ringham Anna would not have been possible. For, as I am sure your seasoned theatregoers know, the USP of the play is that the audience listens to the proceedings on stage through headphones. The action being set in the modish East Berlin apartment of Ann (Phoebe Fox) and Hans (Paul Bazely) Weber in 1968, expertly designed by Vicki Mortimer. Anna enters in the dark, potters about. Hans joins her, returning from work. They are about to host a party to celebrate Hans’s promotion. Their elder neighbour, Elena Hildebrand (the ever wonderful Diana Quick), joins them before Hans’s work colleague pitch up en masse, including his intimidating boss Christian Neumann (Max Bennett).

Anna is nervous of Herr Neumann and, with a nod to Death and the Maiden, we soon find out why. Or do we? Across the brief 70 minutes or so Ms Hickson pops in a few twists whilst ramping up the tension as the party drinks flow. We are listening in from Anna’s aural standpoint, as it were, so it’s pretty clear all is not what it seems, though to be fair I didn’t see the end coming. Maybe it didn’t quite hang together dramatically but as a way of conjuring up an atmosphere of claustrophobia, surveillance and suspicion, the cornerstone of Communist East Germany, the technology certainly did the job. And just to be sure we embrace the spying vibe. we are separated from the Dorfman stage by a glasss wall.

The cast, especially those aforementioned as well as Nathalie Armin, Jamie Bradley, Michael Gould, Georgia Landers, Lara Rossi and Duane Walcott, all rose to the technical challenge even if they had limited opportunity to get under the skin of the characters. And director Natalie Abrahami, and movement guru Anna Morrissey, deserve immense credit for orchestrating the party. Phoebe Fox has to portray a range of real, and fake, emotions as Anna and sometimes, much like the play itself, which has to support a number of themes inside its thriller structure, doesn’t quite manage to keepit together. But it is still impossible not to get immersed in the story, even if it warranted twice the length, and you never stop marvelling at what the Ringham boys are punching down your lugholes. Not sure I would want to experience theatre this way every day of the week, (the whole point is that this was not a communal experience), but, like Simon McBurney’s The Encounter, you need to try this once.

Switzerland at the Ambassadors Theatre review **

Switzerland

Ambassador’s Theatre, 16th November 2018

A couple of weeks prior to Switzerland the Tourist took in another play by Joanna Murray-Smith, Honour, at the Park Theatre. A very fine cast and a sharp enough dissection of a marriage broken by the cliche of the husband leaving for a younger woman, but alarmingly contrived, and borderline pretentious.

Still Switzerland has a sound reputation and the reviews for this Theatre Royal Bath production were pretty strong. And the SO is a massive fan of the talented Tom Ripley, especially in Anthony Minghella’s cinematic version (as opposed to Rene Clement’s earlier Plein Soleil). So a play which pitched the famously cantankerous Patricia Highsmith, author most famously of the Ripley novels, holed up in the mountains, and a fresh-faced flunkey from her American publisher, looked to be right up our strasse. It wasn’t difficult to guess that the young man would likely take on the attributes of Ms Highsmith’s sophisticated sociopath but even so we were intrigued by the premise.

Metaphysical conflation of an author and their most famous creation may not be entirely original but it should be the entry point into an illuminating and powerful drama. Switzerland started off well enough. William Dudley’s set delivered the lofty interior of a Swiss chalet, complete with distant mountain views and Ms Highsmith’s alarming antique armoury on the walls. The lighting of Chris Davey and sound of Mick Pool both got with the thriller project. A hint of Sleuth and especially Deathtrap, pervaded the stage, and, as it happens, the plot. (BTW both of these are better plays/films – in the case of Sleuth in either cinematic version). Phyllis Logan as Patricia Highsmith certainly looked and sounded the part: a lifetime of booze, fags and isolation leaving her character hoarse and suspicious. Callum Findlay, as the visitor Edward, had enough of the wide-eyed, naif superfan to persuade us that she would have let him stay. There’s a bit of a gear crunch as the irascible Highsmith is then persuaded by Edward to drum up a new Ripley plot, but so be it. 

However, slowly but surely the suspense then starts to drain out of the Ms Murray-Smith’s text. She piles up the biographical details of PH’s ghastly childhood (let’s just say she and her Mummy didn’t get on), adult misanthropy and overt racism, alcoholism, depression, illness, sexuality. Maybe she was insecure and damaged, particularly by the way her talent was dismissed because of the “genre” she chose to work in, and behaved this way for effect, or maybe she was just a nasty piece of work. The play doesn’t delve too deep. The attempt to turn Edward into a vision of Tom with a dapper pressed suit (out of a rucksack no less) and a whisky tumbler in hand is unconvincing. Tom Ripley is undoubtedly one of the C20’s greatest existential (anti-) heroes, up there with Mersault, Antoine Roquentin, Raskolnikov, Patrick Bateman, Rick Deckard, Port Moresby, Gregor Samsa and those two tramps. He is well-mannered, cultured, intelligent but also a narcissistic serial killer, a con-man whose sexuality is unresolved. He literally gets away with murder. What’s not to like? That is the whole point. We can’t help liking him. 

There is not enough opportunity for Calum Findlay to get anywhere close to Ripley though. After a while it begins to feel that all we are getting is Patricia Highsmith’s Wiki page and some quick notes from the 1999 film. I was hoping for and expecting some shift in the direction of the play, not a twist as such, but some leap that took the story beyond prosopography (yep it is a word, look it up, I am trying to find the moment when I can drop it into a casual conversation). It never came. The alter-ego theory was laid out but never explored. So I ended up underwhelmed as did the SO, for broadly similar reasons. For a play about a writer whose books are artfully dramatic this seemed a shame. 

This was even more of a surprise given director Lucy Bailey’s recent pedigree. She directed the two very recent successful Agatha Christie adaptations, Lover From A Stranger and Witness For The Prosecution. The Tourist hasn’t seen either (yet) but, being a high falutin’ sort of fellow he did see Cave, Tansy Davies’s latest opera at the Printworks, which she directed and which was terrific (if you like that sort of thing – which I do). She also has a string of feted RSC Shakespeare to her credit.

So it is, with regret as Sir Alan would have it, that I have to report that Switzerland was a disappointment as a play if not in its execution. In contrast to its predecessor here at the charmingly intimate Ambassadors, Foxfinder which was a fine play let down by the realisation of the revival.