We are immediately off to a bad start with the Badac Theatre Company’s “Anna” because there are no seats. After disembarking from a lift in the bowels of the Summerhall, the audience are arranged standing along a corridor facing each other. You would have to be a very brave theatre critic to protest at this point. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya, the subject of this show, was intimidated, beaten, and then unceremoniously murdered for standing up to the Russian military. And I am complaining because I have to stand up for fifty minutes! I should be ashamed of myself!
This is no different from a ghost tour, I reason with myself, and you always enjoy those. Politkovskaya (Marnie Baxter) is now strutting down the corridor, pecking at our foreheads with her outrage. She has a story to tell us! She has a story to tell us! But we don’t listen! We never listen! We never listen to the story she has to tell us! Is there an echo in here?
Next the Witness (Saskia Schuck) is banging on about her murdered son. Spittle gradually covers her entire face. My friend is concerned about flecks landing in his beer.
There is lots of shouting, and this is basically what this play is: shouting. If you have seen three minutes of this play, then you have seen the entire play. Any teenager who has ever written a horror story knows that in order for the horror to be frightening, one must begin with something which is lovely or comforting. The something-which-is-not-horror comes to sanction and give meaning to the horror. Yet this rudimentary storytelling ability eludes Steve Lambert, the writer of “Anna.” All of his play is horror: disaster, murder, rape, torture, and destruction, all in wearying succession.
“Anna” is henceforth as flat as a pancake. There is no progression or development; no crescendo or climax; and its achievement is to take a fascinating and horrific story and to reduce it to fifty minutes of gruelling monotony. Half of the Fringe’s gormless critics have fallen for this play, festooning it with stars, but the Scotman’s Joyce Macmillan makes a good point when wondering whether “Anna” is “a spectacle some might enjoy for all the wrong reasons.” I would venture that this play does not command the narrative competence to excite perverts and misogynists. During the scene in which Anna’s tormenters are apparently forcing her to shit herself, I was thinking about the haircut of the man opposite me.
If a play this bad was on a stage fifteen feet away then everybody would walk out, and so we have to be imprisoned inside the play with the actors. Or perhaps the actors have invaded the sort of corridor along which an audience would queue outside of the theatre. Without lighting controls or a sound system, this play is also technically unaccomplished. The actors seemed to be banging saucepan lids together to produce the gunshots. “Anna” ended on a final gimmick, with the heroine’s martyred body lying on the floor of the lift as it carried us back to Earth. It would have been awkward if the lift had got stuck and we had to spend three hours trying to politely ignore her presence.
Everything in this play is held together by emotional manipulation. We are dissuaded from laughing in the actors’ faces out of respect for the woman who they are honouring. Yet if the audience end up smirking behind the actors’ backs, this is because Lambert provides us with no believable sense of what Anna was like or of the context in which she had lived and worked. She is forever beating at a locked door, in appealing to us to “do something” about injustice, but with no clue as to what. Badac Theatre portray her as a figure of apolitical outrage and simple tactical ineptitude. If they are to make such a mess of Anna’s story, perhaps it is better if she Rests in Peace.
[Update: Badac Theatre’s awareness-raising leaflets about the journalists killed in action in 2013 are somewhat undermined by this 2008 article on the Guardian. Steve Lambert, the writer of “Anna,” physically attacked Chris Wilkinson, a journalist who criticised his play “The Factory,” screaming “I will fuck you up. I will fuck you up. In Edinburgh or London, I will fuck you up. Are you fucking scared now?” It all sounds strangely reminiscent of the dialogue used in “Anna.”]