Clare Barron must have read Lisa D’Amour’s 2003 play Anna Bella Eema before she wrote Dance Nation. They’re cut from the same filthy piece of cloth. They share the same feral-tender linguistic energy (can you tell which play the line, “What’s a girl to do with this kind of knowledge? What’s a girl to do with this kind of pain?” is from?) They have a similarly arch, discordant musicality. Naturalism, for the most part, is eschewed for a heady expressionism. And both tap into the apocalyptic, into the idea that to be a young woman is to be confronted with an overwhelming sense of Armageddon.
Three women, all seated. One louchely reclining, one gripping onto a desk for dear life, one perched, hands on knees and eyes wide. A mother, Irene, who can’t leave her trailer. Her daughter, Annabella, on the cusp of puberty, straining at the leash. And a silent girl made out of mud, Anna Bella Eema, created out of boredom and the catalyst for internal and external transformation. An interstate highway is being built. It looms on the horizon of their deserted trailer park. Change is coming, whether they like it or not.
Anna Bella Eema is a startling, unwieldy beast, quivering with barely bridled chaotic energy. Watching it can feel a little like trying to walk a bear on a leash. It is a strange old thing, the narrative occasionally petering out like a rusty faucet running dry, slipping from song to speech like a head drooping and jerking out of dreamland. It goes up and down, left and right, sometimes stops dead in its track to have a sniff around for a few minutes (and it does infuriate at points – there is one extended dream sequence which feels particularly strained.) Images rush in all at once then linger long afterwards – bones swell, vampires live on construction sites, women turn into wolves. Adolescence is metamorphosis in its most awe-inspiring mythological sense. The sensation of a body inexorably, inevitably changing, mutating out of childhood before the mind can catch up to it – that’s a terrifying, all-encompassing, incomprehensible thing. “I carry all this revolution / but I am only ten years old,” Annabella sings – the onset of puberty is writ epic, as it should be. Anna Bella Eema is all over the place – but then again, so are tweens.
Jessica Lazar’s production has an uncanny, almost alarming clarity to it. There is a propulsive purpose to her direction – it ploughs ahead, undeterred – exhilarated, even – by a deeply unwieldy text. It doesn’t restrain it so much as egg it on – sometimes, sure, to its detriment (someone grab a razor – a good 15 minutes could be shaved off.) Lazar’s sliced open the play, pored over its insides, then stitched it back up. Certain swathes of it may go over your head, but there’s the impression that you’re being steered by a confident captain. Get in, losers, we’re going capital-W Weird. Get onboard or you’ll be left behind. Jennifer Fletcher’s movement has the three women writhing and twisting in their chairs, straining at unseen (partially imagined?) restrictions. The stories Irene tells are a necessary comfort, but they’re a self-inflicted prison too. Anna Lewis’s ramshackle design sits on top of a brown oil-spill. It’s got a treacly sheen to it. Stuck, stuck, stuck. Fletcher’s movement matches D’Amour’s sinewy writing beat for beat – exacting and eerie, rarely static, never boring. Beverly Rudd is extraordinary as Irene – bear-like and regal, anchoring the centre of the stage, flanked by Natasha Cottriall’s delicately twitchy Anna Bella Eema and Gabrielle Brooks’s fearful yet ferocious Annabella. There is a touch of The Beauty Queen of Leenane to Irene and Annabella’s relationship – their love is all twisted up, warped and knotted tight like a tree root.
Anna Bella Eema is an awfully tender, perfectly flawed thing. It can sometimes feel like an exercise in patience, but what’s theatre if not a place to stretch out your empathy muscle? It’s dense, but not impenetrable. There are tracks in the dirt to follow. You just have to be willing to look.
Anna Bella Eema is on at Arcola Theatre until 12th October. More info and tickets here.