Park Theatre – until 7 December 2019
Reviewed by Claire Roderick
Olivia Olsen’s new play about Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet who voiced the suffering of the people in Stalin’s Russia is heartfelt but flawed.
Olsen plays fast and loose with timelines and compositing her friendships with male emigres into Isaiah Berlin, instead focussing on Anna’s conflicted feelings and the source of her poetry. With her husband executed and her artistic past questionable and dangerous under Stalin, Anna reluctantly agrees to writing poetry for Stalin and helping him with his speeches, in the hope that he will free her son from the gulag.
The arrival of Berlin, now working for the British government, offers Anna an escape from Leningrad, but she never leaves until ordered to by Stalin during the siege of the city. There is a lot of impassioned declaiming about the city being Anna and Anna the city and chewing over her guilt at helping Stalin for the sake of her son when so many lives are being destroyed, but it all blends into a long, circular argument. Olsen’s portrayal of Anna, staring into the mid distance as she talks about poetry and art, and swaying like a reed in the wind as she recites poetry, is interesting, with Ben Porter’s Berlin presenting a worldlier view of the situation. The scenes with Ian Redford as Stalin come as a relief. I never thought I would be thinking “oh, good, time for Uncle Joe”, but Redford infuses monstrous energy into the proceedings. Ranting and raving, but delivering threats with a deadly calm, Redford handles the bad taste one-liners brilliantly and is worth the price of a ticket. Unfortunately, even these scenes become repetitive, and when Anna reveals her secret oral distribution of her great poem Requiem, the thrill the audience should feel is noticeably absent. Some editing could cut out repetitive moments and hone this into a shorter, sharper and more engaging play that would do the great poet justice.