Film: BFI London Film Festival Guide


ANNA at the National Theatre

Image © Johan Persson

An immersive production of suspicion and apprehension in Cold War Eastern Berlin

It’s 1968 at The Dorfman theatre and Anna and Hans Weber are throwing a party. 

In the communist society of East Berlin, the couple live in an imposing plattenbau tower block, overlooking the grey slabs of city beneath them. We follow Anna as she prepares to host a party celebrating her husband’s recent promotion, a party in which the guest of honour is Hans’ boss Christian, a prominent and established member of the Socialist Unity Party that oppressively controlled the country for 40 years. We watch Anna’s guests bustle around their typically art deco flat, as the collective tone of the party evolves in response to the varying events of the night. 

Set in a world where people are arrested and dragged from their homes in the middle of the day, no doubt facing execution, where films and music that promote capitalistic values and western ideals are stock of the black market and an estimated 1 in 6 people spied on their friends and colleagues for the benefit of the terrifying Stasi secret police, the tone of the show is no doubt wrought with tension. Established by Anna’s initial anxiety at the weight of hosting a party for her husband’s new boss and the stress of hosting in her own home, her apprehension accelerates, and this feeling grows with the audience. Despite Pheobe Fox’s superb performance as Anna, the play lets itself down with a lack of commitment to an exact tone. Thrown into blackout silence at the beginning of the show and again midway through, the production hints at presenting itself as a thriller, however the rest of the show is that of an agitated drama, and the minor thrilling elements feel odd and out of place. However, without a doubt the production excels as a kitchen sink style drama.  
The play stands out in production value and use of technology. A unique element of this National Theatre show is the use of headphones, which each member of the audience is instructed to put on before the show begins. This use of sound puts the audience in Anna’s shoes. When someone says something into her left ear the audience hears it in their left headphone, and when Anna is out of earshot of the characters, we cease to hear their conversation. As she moves around the flat, we hear snippets of casual party chatter, and when she leaves the room, we hear nothing, whilst still in full view of the soiree. Although novel, this way of consuming audio perfectly establishes the audience’s affinity with Anna and creates an immersive presentation of the story. Your brain fills with noise in a stand out moment when Anna enjoys a snippet of banned Western music, a glimpse into the world that lies outside the 12-foot concrete walls that surround her beloved city.

The set design is evocative of the late 60s that slowly roll into the early 70s, and displays a nationwide conservatism, function over form and the aesthetics of socialism. A no frills property with certain modern elements such as a record player and telephone yet missing other mainstream luxuries such as a TV. The audience peer into the flat through the figurative fourth wall, a literal glass panel separating us and them. The characters move in and out of the lounge area, frequently popping out of view into the bathroom, bedroom or the limited view of the kitchen. This fixed viewpoint of a supposedly small apartment creates a feel of claustrophobia for audience and cast, which paired with the enveloping audio helps contribute to the evolving sense of apprehension. 

Anna is a well-presented performance with deep historic and cultural themes. Before going into it we recommend you have a little swot up as to the context of life in East Germany, as without it’s easy to lose nuances of the storyline. Otherwise enjoy a well thought out production with a standout cast and a winding storyline, that addresses themes not only of oppressive state but also of loyalties, friendship and family. 

ANNA is at the National Theatre 22 May - 15 June. Visit the website for tickets
Image credit: Johan Persson