Harold Pinter Theatre, London – until 4 August 2021
Who are we and who are the people we meet? These rather profound questions have, in one way or another, been at the heart of Sonia Friedman’s brief Re:Emerge season at the Harold Pinter Theatre which concludes with Anna X.
A festival of new writing, Re:Emerge has taken us to deepest America to consider space travel, climate and the conflicting scientific and natural worlds, to Notting Hill where Caribbean Black British identity and heritage ran-up against personal acceptance and cultural appropriation at the Carnival, and finally to the fast-paced, image-centric New York art scene where identity is fluid, mutable and only ever screen-deep. The opportunity provided by empty theatres to try out new work and provide a platform for new voices and experiences has been a valuable reassessment of the West End and just who is (and should be) reflected on its stages.
Anna X is arguably the most philosophical of the three plays under the wider Re:Emerge banner, asking complex and sometimes unanswerable questions about what personality, character and identity mean in the digital 21st century, where the notion that we can be anything we choose to be is taken to its extremes through the curation and cultivation of our lifestyles, choices and stories presented on social media platforms.
While the concept that reputational damage and transgressions last forever online, the flipside of that is the opportunity to create false or fantasy impressions of who we are, constructing and reconstructing identities using algorithms that ‘feed’ selective highlights of our lives to the people that we know and to complete strangers – highlights that we have filtered, primed and edited to present the best or optimal version of ourselves.
Into this context comes Anna, a character unlike any other and gratifyingly novel in the way that female protagonists have been written. Anna deliberately builds an identity for herself that moves her into the position of social influencer, using art primarily as the tool to generate cache that in turn leads to real life kudos as she transforms her digital profile. First she lands a magazine job and then ‘it girl’/socialite status, opening up a plethora of parties, openings and elite gatherings that further build and sustain her reputation. When she meets tech boom millionaire Ariel who created an elite dating app, the beginnings of a modern New York fairy tale are in place.
But writer Joseph Charlton has something far savvier and more interesting to say, because despite Anna’s very public and performative lifestyle, she remains a deeply mysterious and unpredicatable force in the play. Based on a true story, a traditional gold-digger narrative would have been the predictable trajectory of Anna X, yet, proving truth is stranger than fiction, Charlton’s play instead pairs two characters with unstinting access to a rarefied world who are not only conversant with the art of digital platforms but fundamentally employed by or tied to them in their daily lives. Neither is, therefore, dependent on the other to ‘access’ these physical or technological spaces.
Yet, Anna is entirely devoted to the moment, not obviously for money or even the easy gratification of Instagram likes, but for the real albeit fleeting experiences of these events. What makes her so fascinating is the intangible contrast between the fact of her online presence and its real, evidential reality, and the elusiveness of her personality, the refusal to be defined by the massing of information about her. To present a female character in this way with no clearly expressed wants or needs is fascinatingly unusual, her enigmatic qualities and contradictions holding your attention throughout this 80-minute play.
That women on stage are so often defined by love, family or materiality makes Anna so appealing and while Charlton has created this very selective, monied cultural existence, Anna seems never to truly belong to it, always operating at a layer removed. Yet she is still fundamental to it and almost the fulcrum around which everything else is held in balance. She is there but not there, the epicentre of it all yet part of something larger to which she too is drawn but not invested.
To enhance the discomposing effect of his lead character, Charlton does two key things within the play’s structure that continually disrupt the narrative and prevents the audience from identifying too closely or empathising with Anna. The first is to layer the time lines, wrapping present day events in reminiscences and different degrees of memory while using the actors to play a variety of other characters to flesh-out their grounding in New York and the pivotal conversations they have. At all times, Charlton remains firmly in control of the flow, safely navigating the audience through the myriad of information to wherever her left Anna and Ariel.
The two characters frequently break from the scene they are in and are taken backwards in time to explain how they got to this moment or to provide useful context for the viewer. And Charlton chooses to do this at unusual moments in the midst of conversation, so rather than present a linear narrative, he offers up puzzle pieces which the audience must fit together. The effect is enjoyably alienating, allowing us just enough time to peak our interesting in the connection between Anna and Ariel but interrupting their duologues so we don’t become too attached to them.
Charlton’s second technique effectively and thematically enhances the play’s core identity debates by allowing both individuals to tell their version of the story. They break scene to talk directly to the audience and like their social media feeds, there is a feeling of curation to what we are told, each giving us the part of the story they choose to share and want us to hear. Notably, Ariel tends to reflect more on Anna as a personality and an experience than she does on him, but this framing of characters as both narrators and commentators of as well as players in their own lives feels particularly appropriate. At the culmination of this engaging story Charlton’s storytelling approach chimes perfectly with its outcomes as the whirl of parties, dates, meetings and the vibrancy of the New York art and social scene is shown to be superficial and considerably less than the sum of its parts.
Visually, Anna X is exciting and Mikaela Liakata and Tal Yarden’s video-based design suits the tone and pace of Charlton’s narrative exactly, helping to create tens of locations sailing by as rapidly as scrolling through Instagram, referencing the screen-based nature of this lifestyle but giving a tangible sense of buzz, people and energy in a two-character play set in a crowded and constantly moving cityscape. It is an integral part of the action, constructed from cubes that form a flat video wall with protruding or projected sections to create a multifunctional set that the characters can use as seats, tables or raised platforms.
Not the first time a digital set has been used, but the quality of the images here can be deceptively immersive, creating vivid impressions of grotty New York alleyways behind a lively club, the twinkling skyline view from an expensive apartment or its cunningly implied chic interior as actors appear to sit on sofas emblazoned beneath them. There is a technical precision to it and a genuine thoughtfulness about the play’s themes and the illusion of the screen-based surface which is very pleasing.
For Emma Corrin who plays Anna, and Nabhaan Rizwan who is Ariel, there are interesting dimensions to work with, not quite playing their characters as they are but as real life projections of their digital personas in which the person almost becomes an avatar of themselves. Corrin has the harder job – one she succeeds in admirably – having to convey the unreadable woman who is at once open to all experiences, almost chaotically so, but at the same time entirely shut off from emotional connections or really any sense of herself in the past or future. There is a nuance here though and while the hedonism and detachment is fun, Corrin explores Anna’s discomfort when Ariel gets too close, a desire to flee muddied by her own irrepressible need for human interaction and consistency. She is mysterious but not monstrous.
Ariel by contrast is a far more expressive character, a tech entrepreneur inventing ways to bring people together and perplexed by his inability to shake the impression that Anna makes on him. Rizwan gives Ariel a neediness he didn’t realise he had, chasing the shadow of a girl through the New York social scene, all too willing to believe he is seeing her true self – for someone running an online dating service where digital personas are shallow, the irony appears to escape him. But, Ariel also enjoys the accouterments of wealth and the freedom it gives him to access elite spaces. It comforts his ego to believe Anna is equally wealthy because it overcomes a barrier he seems to encounter in the rest of his life, putting them on an equal footing. Rizwan’s Ariel is deluded perhaps, but no more so than anyone else looking for love and Anna is hardly a benchmark of normality.
Based on a true story, Charlton’s play which received a try-out at the Vault Festival, makes a fierce West End debut as part of the Re:Emerge Season, and whether or not you know the outcome, the exploration of identity constructs and the medium through which they are expressed is hugely engaging. Seen in tandem with productions like Cruise and Public Domain that also debuted in major theatres, Anna X is a fitting end to a trilogy of works that, taken as a whole, ask who gets to tell their stories and the scale of the platform they are given to do it.
Anna X runs at the Harold Pinter Theatre until 4 August with tickets from £5. Follow this blog on Twitter @culturalcap1 or Facebook Cultural Capital Theatre Blog
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