by John Lombard
Canberra REP, 6 September 2019
Twice a day, poet Anna Akhmatova (Karen Vickery) appears at her window.
Two police watch from the street. One suggests shooting her. But the other counsels wisdom: even in Stalin’s Russia, there are some people too important to purge. Anna’s routine appearances at her window confirm that Anna adheres to house arrest, while surprise inspections check that she is not scribbling any of her forbidden poetry.
Meanwhile, in a computer-run totalitarian future, the digital archive of poetry is about to be switched off. When this happens, all poetry will blink out of existence.
In the spirit of The Man In The High Castle, Alma De Groen’s 1998 play blends totalitarian oppression with science fiction, but adds a feminist twist by casting women as the custodians of freedom and history. Director Liz Bradley is alert to the many ideas at work in the play, and finds both cloying menace and bitter comedy in these bleak worlds.
In Anna Akhmatova’s story, Anna evades the ban on her poetry by teaching her poems to acolytes such as Lili (Laine Hart). In the fashion of the drifters from Fahrenheit 451, they become living time capsules preserving her work for the future.
Told in parallel on a split stage, in the future one of these rescued poems inspires professional comforter Rachel (Zoe Swan) to defy her society and forestall the oblivion of poetry.
Karen Vickery has fearsome vitality as Anna Akhmatova, with grief that while her body is inviolate, she is forbidden the emotional release of creating poetry. Laine Hart is a great foil as Anna’s reckless and forthright companion, too rational for the dream logic of Stalin’s twilight world. Michael Sparks brings a surprising patience and respect to his secret policeman, playing a long game to win Anna’s poetry to Stalin’s cause.
The future sequences are less effective. In this panopticon future, humans are utterly regimented, with computers monitoring everything from smiles to daydreams. In this future, people never glimpse a plant, an animal, or even the sky.
Zoe Swan’s self-satisfied Rachel is assigned as secretary/sex worker to corporate poetry historian Sandor (Michael Cooper), and Sandor’s privileged access to the poetry of the old world unleashes Rachel’s humanity. But Sandor is a weak cypher, and Swan and Cooper’s romance is flat and awkward, rather than the seed of a revolution.
Where these sequences subvert is showing a totalitarianism that programs women for the pleasure of men: not chattel like in The Handmaid’s Tale, but finely tuned sex robots.
In a world of facial recognition software, metadata, and digital currency, De Groen’s play is simultaneously prescient and dated. This cautionary tale warns of our lurch into computer-driven totalitarianism, but does not have the populist anarchy of the modern world, where social media broadcasts the rambling of the powerful and even a secret United States military base must fortify itself against invasion by a meme-frenzied horde.
“The Woman In The Window” realises fiery character in Karen Vickery’s Anna Akhmatova, and hallucinogenic ideas. But lacklustre performances limit the play’s ambitious scope, and the incongruous pieces fail to resonate in a grander theme.