Lisa D’Amour’s Anna Bella Eema comes to the Arcola Theatre in a reworked production directed by Jessica Lazar. The original was staged in America, and for this UK premiere, a strong cast and innovative direction creates a magical and captivating fairy tale that feels like a solitary beacon on the trailer park of London theatre.
An eccentric mother sits in the middle of the stage, Irene licks stamps for a living and won’t go outside. At just 25 she home schools her ten-year-old daughter and teaches her from the piles of books that lie around their trailer park home. The rest of the trailer park, once bustling with life, is long deserted as the construction of a new interstate draws ever closer.
Impish and precocious Anna Bella sits to the left of her mother, she is happy in her life but knows the end of the world is coming. She creates another young girl from mud, blood, sweat and piss, and names her Anna Bella Eema. This Golem like creature sits to the right of the stage and takes on an influential role in the lives of Irene and Anna Bella.
This play, which is often confusing and conflicting, utilises a range of rich allegories. The messages that it conveys overlap and compete with each other but there’s a sense of the animalistic nature of humans; Irene believes herself to be a werewolf, but Anna Bella sees her as a racoon, an owl and a fox, while our titular mud girl is often referred to as a hyena.
You could view Anna Bella Eema as the personification of puberty, Anna Bella is in this short time is simultaneously a child and an adult, and it is Anna Bella Eema who is there when Anna Bella begins her first period. But so rich is the writing it would be wrong to assign Anna Bella Eema to any particular role, audiences will see many different aspects of this character and take away their own lesson to be learned.
It is at times very funny, as Irene’s fantastical tales reach new heights, but it’s also visually arresting – the three characters perched on their respective chairs make it look like the kind of painting you might see hanging in the National Gallery. The production also utilises song, all performed acapella, to create this hauntingly beautiful ambience, which is often heightened by percussion created from everyday objects, such as a whisk.
Beverly Rudd is perfect as Irene, caring for her daughter but detached from reality, Rudd’s facial expressions and physical movements are mesmerising. Gabriella Brooks captures the essence of Anna Bella, drawing out the fearful but confident young girl who is wiser than her years suggest. As Anna Bella Eema, Natasha Cottriall balances the fine line between a mythical yet believable character.
Beautifully staged, Anna Bella Eeema is undoubtedly a coming of age story, but what else you want to take away from it is entirely up to you. Yes tricky to follow, but it’s also like falling down an Alice in Wonderland rabbit hole that you don’t want to climb out of.