The National Theatre’s Dorfman stage is to be transformed into a gigantic surveillance centre for Anna, the new play by Ella Hickson. Audience members will watch a newly married couple enjoy an evening in their Plattenbau high-rise apartment in East Berlin, but the set is to be sealed off inside a giant glass box. The only way spectators can eavesdrop on the conversations is through headphones, attached to each of the auditorium’s 200 seats.
It is theatre as an act of espionage and the sound design immediately brings to mind Ulrich Mühe’s Stasi agent in the 2007 film The Lives of Others, listening in on the domestic morality play unfolding in the apartment below his spying post.
But the parallels end there. The Lives of Others is set in 1984, when the East German regime was more or less in open conflict with many of the country’s intellectuals and the state security apparatus had grown into a paranoid monstrosity. Anna takes place over the course of one evening in 1968 – a historic year not only because of the student uprisings taking place in western Europe, but also in the states bound together by the Warsaw Pact.
At the start of 1968, East Germans still had space to dream. Hopes that Soviet states were free to develop their own forms of socialism, independent of Moscow’s influence, had not yet been squashed by Russian tanks rolling over the Prague spring in August that year. President Walter Ulbricht was propagating a “New Economic System” that was supposed to be more flexible than the rigid command economy. Real wages had been on the rise for three years and consumer goods were more readily available than ever before.
Anna has been influenced by Michael Frayn’s Capital of Nowhere, a travelogue written during a trip to both sides of the Berlin Wall in the early 70s. On his journey, Frayn encountered a topsy-turvy world in which bourgeois West Germans proudly waved their Communist party membership cards while East Germans were unabashedly stockpiling cars, television sets and fashion magazines.
In Anna, the early utopianism of the German Democratic Republic is epitomised by the brand-new building that the married couple, Anna and Hans, have recently moved into. It is modelled on a curved modernist high-rise on Leninplatz square in Berlin’s Friedrichshain district. Also known as the “boomerang”, the building was part of an ambitious programme to meet a shortage of public housing.
Hickson, who had a hit last year with The Writer at the Almeida theatre in London, was barely four years old when the Berlin Wall collapsed in 1989. She said she was more interested in the hopes represented by such infrastructure projects than familiar thriller plot lines involving Stasi spies in beige anoraks. “The economics taught in the Soviet Union – that capitalism was merely a stage that countries pass through before they reach communism, that America was lagging behind rather than leading from the front – is so counterintuitive to us that it fascinated me.”
Hickson was living in the German capital in the winter of 2013 when she found herself travelling through what was once Soviet territory on an U-Bahn train while reading A Woman in Berlin. The book is an anonymous memoir about the arrival of Russian troops in the city, and the use of rape as a weapon of war. “I looked up from my book and suddenly realised that a lot of the older people in my carriage would have lived through that enormous upheaval,” she said.
Anna was designed “back to front” Hickson writing her script to suit the technology developed by sound designers Ben and Max Ringham. The brothers, former members of the immersive theatre collective Shunt, direct the audience’s attention by switching the audio focus across concurring action inside the apartment, zeroing in on some conversations and drowning out others.
The play’s intricate sound design, Hickson said, is a mechanism that lets the audience explore the cracks between political idealism and private doubt, between loyalty to a party or to one’s partner. As a reunited Germany celebrates the 30th anniversary of the fall of the wall, Anna tries to listen less to the certainties emerging from the GDR’s collapse and more to the debates and uncertainties of a system that believed itself to be still in the making.
“I am interested in the question of how ideological change takes place. Berlin is a very particular place in that regard. It was the epicentre of a country that was trying to change its entire society to make it more equal within a generation. For my generation, which has grown up without a sense that our political system has real alternatives, such a radical shift is very alien.”