Dorfman, National Theatre, London – until 15 June 2019
We are peering through a glass screen at a flat in East Berlin, early 70s. The Cold War and GDR political severity are in full force behind the Wall. Anna is an economics lecturer, preaching the beauty of the socialist community and it’s compulsory co-operative family love to her students. Her husband Hans has been made a Section Manager; her neighbour Elena’s husband has been taken away by the Stasi and replaced by a new boss, who may not be quite what he seems. But who, the regime being what it is, inspires doglike loyalty. Or else.
After the querulous, inward-looking tedium of her feminist polemic The Writer, Ella Hickson returns to interesting form with this curiosity: a sort of McBurney-meets-leCarré mini-thriller, an hour long and involving everyone donning headphones. So all we hear is what Anna, our heroine, hears either alone or in the course of an awkward party to celebrate Hans’ promotion. We’re bugging her. During the party she has an emotional meltdown over a tragic memory from her wartime childhood 23 years before. Nor is everyone what they seem.
Further than that in the plot it would be wrong to go. But there are puzzles, neatly sorted by the end; and puzzlement for us in our headphones, not least because sharing the perspective of what Anna hears means we aren’t always sure who is talking. Especially as the lighting is very GDR-dim except when fireworks go off outside.
Phoebe Fox as Anna is impressive, as is Diana Quick’s wounded (or is she?) Elena, and Max Bennett is chillingly blond as the enigmatic new boss. Hickson, co-creating this oddity with Ben and Max Ringham who devise the sound design, deliberately aims to make us feel the atmosphere of vintage iron-curtain paranoia. Certain sudden sharp whispers in our headphones and a very disconcerting blackout do achieve that.
At the end the silent cast in their goldfish-tank hold up placards. KEEP US SAFE. NO SPOILERS PLEASE. I obey.