Brighton Fringe 2023
Dovetailing invention and quotation triumphs. It’s a narrative of thrust and weave as well as tone. Overall it’s terrific: one of Richard Crane’s very best works. . If you care for gripping drama, can be drawn by hypnotic verse and superb acting, haste over to this unique hour.
Written by Richard Crane, Directed and Designed by Faynia Williams, Lighting Sound and Technical Chris Daniels, Additional Support Latest 7 Bar. Artwork by Andrew Kay.
Till May 6th (two performances, 3pm and 6pm)
“I need to sell poems or I will die.” So Marina Tsvetaeva (Sarah Berger) buttonholes the audience, processing through the aisle to the stage.
Richard Crane’s Anna & Marina is an event. Snuck into the start of the Brighton Fringe it’s one of the finest verse scripts ever presented here. Developed by Crane from a Radio 3 play of 1994 to which it bears little relation bar the poems, it’s almost entirely set as a verse-play. Imagining meetings between two great Russian poets – on the eve of the German invasion of Russia in June 1941 – it’s poignant, on a knife-edge of possibility. Only two months later, fate struck
A homage piece it’s a wholly original work deploying use of known poetry with other verse and a narrative recalling Crane’s Cambridge Footlights cabaret days, at a different pitch. Akhmatova Cabaret?
No, because an emotional poet slouches literally towards the Sphinx. Berger’s Tsvetaeva is fighting to get to the stage, reach Russia’s greatest living poet: a woman, Anna Akhmatova. Before Tsvetaeva gets there three dead poets – Mayakovsky (Crane himself, hatted and scarlet-scarved), Blok (Stephen Grant, flowing silver-bearded), Yesenin (Michael Bucke, DJ’d youth out of Posh) orate skirling misogynistic choruses separated by compass-points. Tsvetaeva’s “as I am destined/to burn men’s hearts with the word!” won’t appease them. Even Akhmatova’s famously dismissed as “half nun, half whore”. Their separation means there’s minute time-lapses in ensemble, but it’s a striking spatial trope: immersive poetry.
Tsvetaeva and Akhmatova (Tia Dunn) parley over a phone. Is it a trap? Uncle Joe Stalin’s known for calling people himself. Particularly poets. He protects Pasternak, who writes a hidden critique, tries protecting the great Osip Mandelstam – and Akhmatova herself. Poems are learned by heart, then burned. Tsvetaeva, who tries learning Akhmatova as a gesture of homage, doesn’t get this at all. Returning from France in 1939, her spy-husband probably shot on arrival, she doesn’t know how to play this game.
It’s a riddling one. Both admiration and envy inflect their meeting. Akhmatova twice claims of a Tsvetaeva verse: “I thought I wrote that.” Instabilities of ownership, memory, lack of written evidence teases another fight for survival – beyond that of memorising poems to ensure they outlast the Terror. Akhmatova can’t even get a job as a dish-washer.
Berger’s Tsvetaeva trembles extremes; a poet of wildly oscillating states. Berger’s expressive reach is mesmerising; it’s a commanding performance. Shading her voice, despite the poet’s vatic intensity Berger brings terror to Tsvetaeva. There’s eagerness, fright, ironic surprise, rage, despair, exasperation, envy mixed with awe. Tsvetaeva, three years younger than Akhmatova, is rendering homage. But Akhmatova had been anxious not to meet Tsvetaeva 25 years earlier.
Berger humanises the conflicted Tsvetaeva as a darting, staring phantasm. The poets’ differences are summarised in treatments of salt. Tsvetaeva flings it over her shoulder at not being invited to a dinner, where her place isn’t set. Akhmatova writes of Lot’s wife: because she, unnamed, longed for home. Akhmatova stayed in her homeland, Tsvetaeva fled for 20 years, only returned to follow her husband: suspected by emigrés and Soviets alike.
Dunn – who impressed playing a very different Anna recently in David Greig’s Pyrenees at the New Venture Theatre – is adamantine, regal, standing tall as Akhmatova in fact did. Occasionally playful, even cat-like, she imparts a measure of Akhmatova’s guarded fire, delivering as from a pillar of bronze: her impenetrable witness summarised in this, one of the most famous passages in Russian poetry:
Through the years of Terror
I stood in the queue
outside Leningrad’s prisons.
One day someone saw me.
She was next to me in the queue.
She didn’t know my name.
Her lips were blue.
She whispered –
We only ever whispered then.
Can you put this into words?
I said: I can.
Then something like a smile
What used to be her face.
The difference in tone is startling; the verse expresses each poet’s character beyond rhetorical sallies kept up by Crane.
What’s fleetingly vivid is sketches of these other great poets: Mayakovsky, Blok, Yesenin (and fleetingly Mandelstam). Whilst there could have been more on the poets acting as chorus to give them weight, there’s just enough to identify differences. As parts they can seem undernourished, occasionally scrappy and might pull focus. Perhaps grouped together in absolute ensemble they could more amplify the general tragedy of Russia’s great silver age of poetry, clearly their point. Crane refuses a binary two-hander: the work’s amplitude cries out for chorus: it can be easily tweaked.
There might seem a touch of The Habit of Art, Alan Bennett’s 2009 play, fictionalising a meeting between old friends Auden and Britten, that could have taken place in Oxford in 1972. Except Crane’s original play predates that by 15 years.
Tautly directed and designed by Faynia Williams, lighting and sound is cleanly trained by Chris Daniels. It includes machine-gun fire that for once doesn’t sound outside the sonic envelope. Arvo Pärt’s hypnotic, gentle Spiegel im Spiegel, (Mirror on Mirror) furnishes an inspired musical commentary on the basilisk gaze each poet confers on the other.
Some of the packed – and informed – audience know this poetry; even so there’s debate over how much quotation ripples into freshly-written connecting passages; how much some poems – like Akhmatova’s Requiem and Poem Without a Hero (quoted above) – are embedded. Dovetailing invention and quotation triumphs. It’s a narrative of thrust and weave as well as tone. Overall it’s terrific: one of Crane’s very best works. If you care for gripping drama, can be drawn by hypnotic verse and superb acting, haste over to this unique hour.