Sarah Irving

I do things with words, mainly English and Arabic

‘Anna’ at the Edinburgh Fringe, Summerhall

At the end of this evening, a mild-mannered man called Keith came up to me as I was unlocking my bike from the Summerhall railings and asked me what I thought about the play we’d both just seen. His mistake. Anna, a Badac Theatre piece based on the life of heroic Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, wasn’t a bad play, but it pressed a lot of my buttons, which means that poor Keith got a lot of cynicism and not much polite chit-chat.

Certainly Anna is an interestingly-staged, intense, challenging piece of theatre. The audience is led from the Summerhall foyer into a lift and taken down a level to where ‘Anna’, played by Marnie Baxter, lines people up against the walls, where they will stand for the next hour. She’s already in role, tense and desperate to communicate the horrors she’s seen, frustrated that people don’t act on what she reports. The corridor is hot and reeks of paint, so even for the audience it’s physically challenging.

The play is essentially a series of stories reported by Politkovskaya, told partly by her, partly by Saskia Schuck as a victim/witness and partly by Joe Gooch and Nathan Thompson as the various state and military perpetrators. The issues covered include Russian army ‘suicides‘ – young recruits tortured to death for no apparent reason; the 2002 Moscow theatre siege; the Chechen ‘disappeared‘; and the apparently motiveless torture and rape of Russian civilians in army camps. This is hardly laugh-a-minute stuff, and the set adds to the intensity of the experience – the basement corridor is a fairly cramped space, so as viewers we are right up against the actors as they shout, swear, scream obscenities, act out scenes of brutal and sometimes sexual violence, and in doing so sweat, spit and drool.

The writing is, for the most part, slightly stylised, repetitive and simple. Anna’s character might have been more affecting had she been more human; we learn a small amount about why she became a journalist, her fears for her family, her occasional wondering at how she went from studying the poetry of Marina Tsvetaeva to writing about the most horrific things that human beings do to one another. She also sometimes berates the audience powerfully for their lack of action, their failure to take up their responsibilities as citizens and human beings to try to stop these things happening. But the role too often lapsed into a kind of politically simplistic link between the tableaux, which was a pity. But overall, the stripped-down, focused acting and script was powerful and the performances strong and raw.

Why, then, did poor Keith get the rough end of my politically jaded current outlook? It was nothing to do with the play itself, which as I hope I’ve conveyed was a gutsy piece of contemporary theatre. It’s more that I find myself wondering what the purpose of these productions is, more generally. Assuming that this was a fairly standard middle-class Edinburgh festival theatre-going crowd, it was interesting to watch the audience’s reaction to this play; most of them (us) were busy avoiding meeting one another’s eyes, perhaps experiencing nasty niggles of guilt at ‘Anna’s’ accusations of failure to listen and to act. No names ever got used – we had ‘Our Glorious Leader’, Steve Lambert with a muscular, shaven-headed appearance reminiscent of Vladimir Putin. One character was obviously meant to be the vile Ramzan Kadyrov. No-one ever specified that this was Russia, and on several occasions ‘Anna’ talked about this happening in your country, our country.

So, perhaps some left-liberal theatre-goers had a twinge of guilt. Badac very much did their campaigning duty. The programmes featured a statement from one of Politkovskaya’s friends which includes the passage:

“We don’t need monuments and we don’t need museums for Anya. I know that all we have to do [sic] is to help Anya’s people – the victims, whom nobody wants to listen to, and the whistle-blowers, who can be silenced any day. We owe it to the memory of Anya to protect the very few who still speak out in Russia. No more – no less.”

We also got flyers for Raw in War, an organisation working on the impacts of war on women and girls, and a list of all the journalists killed so far this year. But my increasingly frustrated question is – how many people actually do anything different because of a piece of political theatre or film or a talk? I increasingly find myself suspecting that a lot of people go to these things as their item of political activity. They can depress/shock themselves, tell themselves that they are more informed, have somehow suffered by seeing something harrowing when they could have watched something beautiful/fun/relaxing, and this somehow makes them better people, their duty fulfilled. And I no longer buy it. So, poor Keith got his ear twisted, and I find myself being the grumpy cynic again. Round the mulberry bush.

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