“It’s a sunny outlook on a very bleak landscape, but somehow it does the trick”
After singing along to two choruses of ‘Take Me Home, Country Roads’ with writer-performer Sam Ward and the rest of the audience, my theatre buddy takes her arm from around my shoulders as the lights go up, turns to me, and, smiling blissfully, says, “I didn’t get it.” That’s almost as much as you need to know really.
We Were Promised Honey! is a calmly conveyed confusion: In August 2018 a baggage handler, Richard, stole a plane and, after performing some amazing stunts, inevitably died on crash landing. Ward interlaces this with some very controlled audience participation, and long surreal monologues about what will happen after the play is finished- in five hours most of you will be asleep, in eight hours, one of you will send an email saying, ‘Great, thanks Claire’ before walking into your boss’s office and quitting to become a farmer. In fifty years, one of you will think you’re Jesus. In 500 years, when the sky turns black, one of you will turn to your partner and say, ‘Why does it always end like this?’
The evening is split into three, and before the start of each section, Ward gives his audience a choice: We can sit here in silence until the advertised runtime of the show is over, or, even though you already know it’s going to end badly, you can hear what happens next. I can’t imagine there’s ever been an audience so hive-minded and strong-willed not to say ‘I would like to know what happens next’ so it’s not much of a risk, but it makes the point Ward is, I think, trying to make: Yes, we are all going to die, and the world will eventually end, and one day the last black hole will eat itself and there will be nothing left. But in the meantime, there’s plenty to see and do and say, and we needn’t sit in silence, waiting for the end to come.
It’s a sunny outlook on a very bleak landscape, but somehow it does the trick, and rather than feeling despairing and solemn, the audience leaves the auditorium heartened, in an almost festival atmosphere. Of course, that might not be Ward’s point at all, and maybe I just didn’t get it. But paired with David Doyle’s seemingly godly lighting, Carmel Smickersgill’s contemplative soundscape, and Ward’s smiling self-assuredness, it doesn’t really matter how it’s supposed to end. The point is I enjoyed the journey.
Receiving its UK premiere at the Arcola Theatre, Pulitzer Prize finalist Lisa D’Amour’s spoken and sung Anna Bella Eema is an incredible piece of storytelling that leaves you open-mouthed – sometimes with wonder and often with mystification.
D’Amour has reworked the play since its 2001 first appearance in Texas and Jessica Lazar’s direction gleefully embraces the curiosity of a wild play that is probably undefinable. But even if we are not always entirely certain of what is going on, the production itself is magnificently polished with three central performances to make you sit up and take notice.
Anna Bella Eema is described as a ghost story for three bodies with three voices. If trying to pin a label on such an eccentric and esoteric work is even worth doing, the nearest one might manage is that it’s a feminist post-modern Samuel Beckett, though even he might have balked at including werewolves, talking foxes, traffic inspectors and a girl made out of mud in the same play.
The audience arrives to discover the three performers (identified only as One, Two and Three in the text) seated on three chairs on a solid rectangle that could define the area of the trailer in which they live or might represent something altogether more earthy and basic. The small set (Anna Lewis) is packed with personal belongings and other items that are sometimes struck or shaken to produce dynamic sound effects.
The performers rarely move from these chairs but colourfully narrate the story of an agoraphobic mum and her sassy ten-year-old daughter who are the only residents of a trailer park which is due to be demolished in favour of a new highway. Perhaps in a bid to ward off the approaching evil the young girl creates a mud girl, or golem, who becomes a friend, an alter-ego and a representation of creative indocility.
The result is a production with hypnotic intensity that doesn’t always work or strike home in the way it should (the fault of the play itself as much as anything), but which has a constant freshness and fascination.
As the young mother who has become a recluse in her trailer, almost oblivious to the world outside, Beverly Rudd is a commanding figure. Unpredictable and ferocious, yet delicate, her Irene/One speaks as easily about being visited by a werewolf as she does seeing a social worker. We sense that the world she inhabits (as trapped in her home as Nell is in her dustbin in Beckett’s Endgame) is often beyond her comprehension and everything she says and does is a deluded retreat from reality.
Equally compelling is Gabrielle Brooks as the precocious and imaginative daughter Anna Bella/Two, a lively and cheeky portrayal of a young girl on her own voyage of discovery, especially during a five-day coma. Brooks shows us a girl as eager to escape the confines of her existence as her mother is to be imprisoned by it.
Natasha Cottriall’s Anna Bella Eema/Three has an air of the mythic but also a down to earth impertinence that reflects the dreams of her “creator” as she changes the lives of the people around her forever.
Music and sound designer Tom Foskett-Barnes is the unseen fourth performer, as a scintillating soundscape is produced in music and effects which are as important to the narrative as the lines themselves.
In some ways this is an inscrutable coming of age story, in others the theme is broader (the invasion of the all-American dream, shades of last year’s film The Florida Project), with all three females being aspects of each other, with a keen desire to fight the unrelenting destructive tide of progress.
Anna Bella Eema’s otherworldly and magical perspectives in this Atticist and Ellie Keel co-production with the Arcola may often lead to bewilderment, but even in the confusion this is American Gothic with a touch of the outlandish, poetic and profound.