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THEATRE Anna X, Harold Pinter Theatre London

Mordant critique of an art world infected by neoliberal values

AN ARTWORK in itself, Anna X opens as an installation, with strobe lighting, electronic music, two dancing actors and surtitles of their clipped, and sometimes misheard, conversation.  

The couple, immersed in the high-octane gadfly life of the New York arts and apps scene, are a world away from their origins. Anna (a superb performance from Emma Corrin) and Ariel (a vulnerable Nabhaan Rizwan) are the protagonists of  this fine new play from Joseph Charlton, directed by Daniel Raggett.  

Its subject matter is the push and pull of shallow and deep identity. Anna, from Ukraine, but posing as a rich Russian, arrives in the city to start an internship with a trendy fashion and art magazine and, of course, wants to open her own art gallery.  

She soon learns to “speak art,” name-dropping its contemporary darlings — Emin, Hirst, Koons —as if they were members of her own family.

But she is her own blank canvas, her chosen world concealing the emptiness beneath, with the people she meets – who have their own assumptions about her – filling the void. One of them is Ariel, also new in town. He’s left a mediocre tech career in San Francisco to launch an exclusive dating app that has attracted investors and launched him into the Big Apple’s high life. 

For Anna and Ariel, neoliberalism infects the parallel universe of the art world.  Do they know it?  They know things aren’t right.

Mikaela Liakata and Tal Yarden’s brilliant set and video designs propel the show, with the actors sitting or standing on protruding blocks of concrete against which are projected films of New York, travelling up a Manhattan skyscraper by lift, drab smoking areas and rooms like Richard Hamilton interiors — heady illusions, like those going on in the minds of Anna and Ariel.

Both are deeply neurotic about needing to fit in with this world, for if you drop off its edge, it’s a long way down and fatal to the ego.   Though romantically and sexually drawn to one another, romance and sex are less important than the buzz of belonging in this floating, gloating world.   They need the per centers — and the one per centers need them to keep it all going.

Art as mega business saturates the play, with no hint anywhere of what making art does for the emotions or society, as opposed to social media. No-one cares. The big names are making squillions, the concepts are hot and it’s more groovy to be a curator than an artist.

Charlton’s script is smart, with some terse lines describing the super rich, yet there is nothing didactic in the writing. Things aren’t as they seem for Anna X and the question arises: where is it she would like to belong and why?

Runs until August 4, box office: haroldpintertheatre.co.uk

JAN WOOLF

 

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