Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Woman in the Window

Image: Helen Drum

The Woman in the Window by Alma de Groen.  Canberra REP, directed by Liz Bradley.  At Theatre 3 (Acton, Canberra) Naoné Carrel Auditorium, September 5 – 21, 2019.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
Wednesday, September 11

Set Design – Michael Sparks OAM; Costume Design – Anna Senior; Lighting Design – Chris Ellyard; Sound Design – Neville Pye; Properties – Brenton Warren.


The Russians                                          The Australians

Karen Vickery – Anna Akhmatova        Zoe Swan – Rachel Sekerov
Lainie Hart – Lili Kalinovskaya              Alex McPherson – Maren
Thomas Hyslop – Stetsky                      Alex McPherson – Miz
Michael Sparks – Korzh                        Michael Cooper – Sandor
Amanda Brown – Tusya                        Marli Haddeill – Auditor

There are three reasons to praise Canberra REP’s production of The Woman in the Window: for their revival of this significant and currently highly relevant 1998 play, rarely performed since; the quality set, sound and lighting design; the excellence of the directing and acting.

I must say I was surprised to find fewer than 20 attended last night.  I trust there will be many more on Friday and Saturday.  

The play:

‘Dystopia’ is the opposite of ‘utopia’: “an imagined state or society in which there is great suffering or injustice, typically one that is totalitarian or post-apocalyptic”; the opposite of “an imagined place or state of things in which everything is perfect”.

Alma de Groen didn’t have to imagine the historical dystopian society of Stalin’s Russia where the poet Anna Akhmatova was kept under surveillance, forbidden to write her own poetry and required to show herself at her window twice a day to the security police.  Perhaps it was the election of the Howard government in 1996 that stirred de Groen to imagine an Australia in the year 2300 where total surveillance is inescapable. 

Her play is extraordinary for a gradual melding of time and place, as if our future is seen almost hologram-like by Anna.  Finally, the Russian-Australian young woman, Rachel Sekerov, who has illegally searched and copied the secret deep archive of poets from the past, sees Anna. They reach out to each other across space-time.  Their mutual hug dissolves into a hopeful blackout to end the play.  Maybe if not utopia, but at least a future where artistic and scientific imagination and questioning are at the heart of society.

De Groen’s story is almost a parallel to a combination of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (published 1945) and 1984 (1949), starting from a satirical fictional view of Russia.  Orwell imagined the corruption represented by the pigs in the end who could not be distinguished from the corporate humans.  Looking 40 years ahead he also saw how the use of electronic technology would allow surveillance and control to become the central feature of society. 

The Woman in the Window starts from actuality in Russia in the 1950s and extends forward (from 1998) some 300 years to a time when quantum computing and artificial intelligence programming turn humans into virtual robots – even the poets.  But Rachel, employed to service the poets (only men), and the poet she serves, Sandor, break into the system.  With an indestructible virus they publish the whole of the archived poetic works.  I’m paraphrasing, but the Auditor says that knowledge of history causes disruption of social order, and that’s a crime.

In the revelations by whistleblowers Chelsea Manning (2010) and Edward Snowden (2013) we can see how prescient Alma de Groen’s thinking was, just 20 years ago.  We needn’t wait until 2300!  We already have the politics of 3-word slogans; of random drug-testing of the unemployed; of ASIO and AFP attacks on freedom of the press and prosecutions of whistleblowers and even their defence lawyers; and Immigration officials bursting in at 5am, to arrest a family with young children born in Australia because their parents’ visas have expired.

And Newspeak has become internalised in Twitter and Facebook posts.

The production design:

The stage design creates three spaces: on our left, a claustrophobic room cluttered with kitchen cupboard and small table – and books – for Anna, the poet.  Lili, a mathematician, wife of a ‘disappeared’ nuclear scientist who revealed the danger of radiation from contaminated cooling ponds, is Anna’s house help and protective companion. 

Anna’s window, where she must show herself twice a day, looks onto an open space centre stage, with a low platform upstage and cyclorama which can represent the sky.  This space provides for outdoors in 1950 and 2300, and so becomes the time crossover area.

On our right is a cold bare area with two chairs – the 2300 administrator’s office.

With effective lighting and projection, and voice over instructions and announcements, and props which include ‘real grass’ where Sandor can take Rachel, who has never been outdoors before, to see a projection of the night sky “which is accurate” says Sandor, the scenes move from our left to right and centre – at first simply in space, but gradually in time as well.

This design, with costumes of the periods (2300 looks ‘modern’) is essentially simple in concept and works very well.

The directing and acting:

This is the heart of theatre.  From constable plod (Thomas Hyslop) and Russian security interrogator (Michael Sparks) through Administrator Miz (Alex McPherson, who also plays Rachel’s friend Maren) and Auditor (Marli Haddeill), next-door neighbour/informer Tusya (Amanda Brown) and to the four leads, each actor’s characterisation is precise and complex even though many scenes are quite short. 

Especially noted is Karen Vickery’s combination of authority, strength of self-awareness and poetic imagination.  She provides a crucial grounding of purpose for the whole play, supported so well by Lainie Hart and Michael Cooper as partners of Anna and Rachel.  Zoe Swan takes Rachel from a naïve, innocent and confused young woman (reminding me of Offred in The Handmaid’s Tale) through to a new maturity of understanding as she meets Vickery’s Anna to complete the drama.

Some have classed The Woman in the Window as science fiction.  I call it social realism.  Not to be missed.