IN BRIEF Compassionate, urban fable highlights the many human costs of change and loss
“The life of a wild animal always has a tragic end” says reclusive Irene to her ten year old daughter Annabella. Holed up in their immobile trailer, the last one standing in a deserted trailer park, the outside world is a hostile place for them, as the approaching new interstate highway threatens their imminent eviction.
Annabella is a spirited girl, but is utterly left to her own devices. So she creates a friend out of the mud, who lives but does not speak. Anna Bella Eema, as Annabella calls her, is more than a playmate, she seems to be a harbinger of change, a volatile mix of threat and comfort. Annabella begins to experience bodily changes which preface her maturing and cause her much anxiety. During the girl’s dream-infested five-day sleep the outside forces surround the trailer and the showdown is a violent affair, leaving Annabella with a potent legacy.
Beverly Rudd’s hair-trigger Irene is fearsomely intense, at times deadpan-quirkily amusing and at others as savage as the wild animals that she relates to. She drifts in and out of fantasy and reality until their boundaries are blurred and then lost.
Gabrielle Brooks gives an engrossing performance as little Annabella, feisty but lonely and very much her mother’s child, shouldering the burden of being caught in the middle of opposing factions while dealing with massive life changes of her own; our hearts go out to her for her courage and determination. Both she and Rudd carry long passages of narration and monologue with skill and great assurance.
Natasha Cottriall plays well all the supporting characters of the outside world, as well as the Golem-like mud-girl, Anna Bella Eema, whose blankly smiling face and strange song-chants arouse our curiosity.
Lisa D’Amour’s script is highly descriptive, with long passages of narration punctuated by sound, song and small pieces of business. Investing the machinery of threat with animalistic predatory qualities, she vividly brings to life the ever-present fear of change and loss by circumstances beyond one’s control, and the primal power of mother-love. Dreams and visions are woven into the fabric of fear and unstoppable change, both in lifecycles and environment, to substantial effect. Having said this, the unreal and fantastical elements of the writing may lead to a variety of different takeaways from this show, which is a useful reminder that fables can have many different interpretations according to who tells them, and how they are told.
The eerie and sometimes siren-like songs are intriguing to an extent, but I did feel that the actual sound design (which was mostly very good) could have been further developed to support one or two of the long passages of text rather more than they did, to give it more texture.
ANNA BELLA EEMA is a slow-burning piece of storytelling which takes time to build but to its credit, it does not sag at all; as directed in Jessica Lazar’s production, it held the audience throughout its 100-minute running time.
ANNA BELLA EEMA plays at Arcola until 12 October. Details and tickets here