One of the big initiatives of last year was the three plays collected under the umbrella of producer Sonia Friedman’s Re:Emerge season curated by Ian Rickson. The plays deal with “urgent issues integral to rebuilding our society, including structural inequality, climate change and the economics of truth in an internet age”, which is a pretty bold claim. The first of the trio, J’Ouvert was broadcast by the BBC back in April (actually ahead of the staged version) and is still available on the iPlayer. It’s been a bit of a wait for the other two, but Sky Arts have acquired them for broadcast, and they will subsequently appear on the NOW TV catch up service. Walden is due to air just before the end of the year; Anna X premiered last night.
Joseph Charlton’s play first saw the light of day at the 2019 Vaults Festival where it attracted a good deal of attention for its uncompromising look at how the internet, social media and modern life in general encourages the development of online identities. Some are used to power businesses to success; others are used for more nefarious purposes. Charlton shows both sides of the coin in these two handers as Anna and Ariel, a pair of influencers in New York, come together in a relationship which is briefly satisfying (at least for one of them) but then quickly falls apart. Both are from out of town he from the West Coast and she from Russia…or possibly France….or possibly Germany….or possibly the Ukraine. He’s invented a new dating app, Genesis, which grows exponentially. And earns him a fortune. She ostensibly works for a glossy magazine but seems to spend all her time on the socialite circuit attending opening nights, art previews and sitting in the front row by the catwalk. They meet up at an exclusive rave/party, which opens the play. The narrative then radiates out from there going back in time to show how they got to where they are and projecting forward to show the outcomes of their liaison. In many ways it’s a classic con/sting scenario with the rather willingly naïve Ariel (interesting name) falling for the dubious charms of the elfin Anna; the latter is based on the real life Anna Delvey who perpetuated similar fraud and found herself in the dock for grand larceny.
The opening of the piece is certainly arresting with both characters inaudible at the party they are attending and with their dialogue projected as subtitles. After that though it was a bit of a struggle to keep focused and I found myself more intrigued by the visual backdrop created by Mikaela Liakata’s well-conceived video designs. These conjured up a myriad of locations which gave the piece a filmic quality and were entirely appropriate to the overall style of the piece. The two actors, Emma Corrin and Nabhaan Rizwan, have great rapport and in the scenes where they interact directly develop their main characters very well. Alongside these they take on various roles in each other’s stories with a stoner app developer (Corrin) and a French businessman (Rizwan) being particularly well realised. In between there are passages of narration and it is with these that I lost my concentration. This was particularly the case for Corrin/Anna delivering everything in the second person; this was both arch and annoying. I assume Charlton was using it as a device to try and make us complicit in the set up and the lifestyle of the protagonist; it might well have worked in the theatre, here I found it simply irritating.
For much of the time the production directed by Daniel Raggett exudes a rather cold and distanced approach to the characters and situations involved. While I can see why the emphasis is placed here, the resultant glittering artificiality merely reinforces the ongoing ennui we have all regularly felt over the last nearly two years. I think at this time what’s needed is characters which we can care about and I’m afraid I didn’t. That said, I’m sure there will be plenty of people who will enjoys this and as a snapshot of a production which did actually make it onto a stage during 2021 it is a valuable document.