By Nick Pilgrim
Located in Melbourne’s Southbank, The Malthouse Theatre complex is known for its provocative and diverse output. Some of the works I have had the opportunity to experience and review for the venue include:
- Blaque Showgirls;
- Chunky Move’s Anti Gravity;
- Edward II;
- Every Brilliant Thing
- Geraldine Quinn – Queen Bitch;
- The Good Person of Szechuan;
- Managing Carmen;
- Picnic at Hanging Rock;
- Reuben Kaye – The Butch Is Back; and,
Their latest high-octane offering, Anna K, is no exception.
In the stylized universe created by Suzie Miller, powerful women are judged to a vastly different standard from their male colleagues.
This is especially the case for public figures and celebrities in the spotlight, where even the slightest misstep could cause a social media meltdown.
In 2022 alone, I have already watched several plays framed within the context of #MeToo and the battle of the sexes. Where the splashy musical, 9 to 5 played the notion for big laughs, Unsolicited Male was a searing drama filled with misunderstandings, veiled agendas, and mistaken intentions.
Anna K opens in the post-coital afterglow of a five-star hotel room. Sequestered from the outside world, a woman and her athletic younger partner relax in each other’s company.
Through dialogue-driven characterization, it isn’t long before viewers learn of their high-profile identities and shared, perilous truth.
Built as a showcase for veteran actor, Caroline Craig, Anna K is a successful investigative television journalist. However, this romantic fling may soon carry a heavy price. Having left her marriage that very weekend, she has absconded with a top-ranking solder and company whistle-blower. Lexi (Callen Colley) was in fact the central subject of her latest scoop.
The pair soon discover they are headlines in the making. Someone close to them has leaked the blossoming affair, and how they handle their situation (or not) moving forward, forms the emotional core of this ninety-minute journey.
In her autobiography, Legs 11, Rhonda Burchmore addresses the idea of working towards and meeting professional and personal goals in very revealing terms. Calling it ‘The Life Pie’, a person’s choices are divided into four impactful pieces. These being family, friends, health and career. The catch, as Burchmore explains, is that in order to achieve and maintain one objective, a second or even third piece must be sacrificed.
Such is the dilemma of Anna K.
Bottle blonde, slim and articulate, this is someone who in theory should have it all. Fronting a top-rating current affairs program, she is a network dream at the top of her game. Very much a product of her own choosing, the cautionary tale of a smart country girl climbing the corporate ladder and losing her way, has meant exchanging privacy and protection in the process. By comparison, Colley’s fascinating take on Lexi demonstrates how a younger person with less life experience and clearer judgement, can also be swayed by the swirling sea of influence around him.
To date, the media has been good fodder for behind-the-scenes entertainment. Some of the more notable examples include films such as All The President’s Men, Broadcast News, Good Night, and Good Luck, or The Paper, and television dramas like The Morning Show, Paper Giants (The Birth Of Cleo / Magazine Wars) and Succession.
Anna K inextricably ties both private and profession circumstances together. A superhero known for her pursuit of truth at all costs, the tables have suddenly turned. Fans and followers quickly express their disdain via Facebook and Twitter. Out for her blood, there is no turning back.
The play also uses Leo Tolstoy’s sprawling novel, Anna Karenina, as a loose springboard for its linear narrative. (I also sensed elements from Tennessee Williams’ Sweet Bird Of Youth, for its torrid relationship between the faded movie star, Alexandra del Lago, and her opportunistic gigolo/lover, Chance Wayne.)
In director, Carissa Licciardello’s firm hands, Anna K’s self-aware artifice quickly falls apart. Turned inside out now that she is the one being judged, soon Miller’s protagonist becomes unhinged, messy and flawed. Parallel to Craig’s guarded journey, several cameo roles from Louisa Mignone play the voices of reason.
Having stated this, the overall tone lacks impulse. This feeling is potentially explained via an extended monologue referenced in the third-person late in the story. But for most of its duration, every moment or gesture feels considered and choreographed. Anna K never quite loses total control, despite being manipulated by her inner circle.
The show touches on a range of topical content in its brief running time. In an attempt to cover such vast emotional territory, this is both a blessing and a curse.
We never see the loveless marriage with her husband, the initial sparks which initiated her steamy affair, the journalists or general public in person out for her blood. By telling instead of showing, at times it feels a bit reactionary and one-sided, and may have worked better fleshed out as a mini-series than a one-act play. The final result seems more like a treatment, than a fully formed piece. (One of the better plays to explore corporate injustice across both sexes in depth was Women Laughing Alone Eating Salad. In this piece I saw at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles six years ago, the play cleverly casts men and women switching roles and genders for each of the play’s two acts.)
Still, this first-rate production looks slick and eye-catching, with tremendous attention to creative detail.
From the plush set and costume design (by Anna Cordingley), intelligent mood lighting (by Paul Jackson), elegant sound and composition (by Joe Paradise Lui), expert stage management (by Lyndie Li Wan Po and Cointha Walkeden), framed by its wide letterbox proscenium, Anna K has distinct cinematic appeal. Not without moments of ironic humour, there is even a joke about two dead fish which runs parallel to the oversized aquarium the main character finds herself trapped in.
Anna K plays until Sunday September 4.
Images: Pia Johnson