Tim Walker reviews stage show Anna.
The peculiar acoustics of the Whispering Gallery, directly beneath the dome of St Paul’s Cathedral, mean it’s possible to randomly eavesdrop on the conversations of strangers, even if they are some distance away. Ben and Max Ringham, the sound designers of Anna, achieve the same effect in this startlingly innovative piece of theatre.
There is a soundproofed glass screen between the actors and the audience and each seat comes equipped with a set of headphones. This allows Natalie Abrahami to get to decide what conversations between the characters the audience hears. Theatre directors are always control freaks, but this gives this particular one a position of near-omnipotence.
The year is 1968 and the setting is East Berlin, where Anna and Hans – Phoebe Fox and Paul Bazely – are throwing a party to celebrate his promotion. It all seems to be going well enough, but, within minutes, the headphones are plunging the punters into a world of lust, tragedy and horror. Characters not even in the room suddenly became audible. I took my headphones off midway through and realised I was in an eerily silent auditorium. Putting them back on, I was back with the weird and discombobulating feeling I was sitting right in the middle of the gathering.
It’s not just the snippets of conversation, but also the heavy breathing that impinged upon my consciousness. Whenever anyone got to be kissed, I felt it was happening to me and wondered if the blameless punter sitting beside me had lost all sense of control.
Even if this were just a gimmick – a bit like the 3D glasses that were briefly in fashion in the cinema – it would be worth experiencing, but Ella Hickson has taken the exercise to a whole new level with the setting that seems made for this kind of wizardry. If ever there was a place where everyone was clandestinely listening into what everyone else was saying it was Stasiland.
Suffice to say that Christian – Hans’s supposedly munificent boss, played by Max Bennett – shares a dark secret with Anna about a wartime atrocity. It’s an efficient, rather than brilliant, psychological thriller, but the headphones give it a momentum all of its own. If I’ve a problem with it, it is that it has made such stars of its sound designers that the members of the cast scarcely get a look in behind the solid glass ‘fourth wall’. It was only when I was looking at the programme notes afterwards that I twigged Diana Quick – fondly remembered for Brideshead Revisited – had been playing a grey-haired intelligence officer.
Meanwhile, summer is, for me, officially under way, now that Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre has kicked off its season with a production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town. Ellen McDougall’s conscientious production doesn’t quite live up to this fabulous venue, but I’ve high hopes for Hansel and Gretel, with music by the original Engelbert Humperdinck, which is up next.