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The writer of Anna X, which stars The Crown’s Emma Corrin and Industry’s Nabhaan Rizwan talks to us about moving from the Vault Festival to a major West End theatre and putting certain playwrights out to pasture.

The last of the three plays in Sonia Friedman’s first season, post-lockdown was written years before we were plunged into it. Its writer, Joseph Charlton, premiered Anna X at the 2019 VAULT Festival, where his team was given 30 minutes to tech it. Now, he’s watched around 30 people mount it in the West End’s Harold Pinter Theatre.

“It was an amazing feeling going into a real London theatre which has a chandelier, seeing people working on something that’s come out of your head.” This sense of accomplishment is especially gratifying as a writer from the North-East, inspired by the shows of the mega-producer now giving him notes. “It’s really humbling and encouraging that the people at the top of the industry are still really involved in the grassroots.”

It’s not his own achievement he’s most proud of, however, but that of the actors, Emma Corrin and Nabhaan Rizwan. He was familiar with Rizwan through his involvement in the BBC Writersroom for Industry, but first saw Corrin in the audition room, not, as millions of others have, as Diana in The Crown. “It must be really frustrating being an actor because your whole social and social media life totally overtakes your craft and makes you into a celebrity rather than an actor. What’s great about theatre is you really get to show off that you’re good at acting.”

Despite similar names, Corrin’s character here is very different to the people’s princess she played in the TV series: less interested in magnanimity, more in exploitation, beguilement and duplicity. Based on real-life events, she plays Anna Sorokin who defrauded her way into wealth under the faux identity, ‘Anna Delvey’. There’s an equivalence with the exclusive, membership-based dating app Raya, in his second character Ariel, about “people using the internet to create their own realities and put them in the social echelons they weren’t before.” He recognised this “idea of aspiration” before coronavirus. “The idea that you can escape your life through social media and invention is still very powerful and enticing. Everyone wants to feel like there’s more to life than the narrow circumstances we might find ourselves in.”

Naturally, then, the play’s immersed in the hedonism of luxury and endless parties. Charlton looked back on this world of “peak maximalism” — suspended over lockdown — as “decadence before the fall.” His play doesn’t moralise about it, but he’s nevertheless “interested to see if that’s something we return to or moderate.” He feels “really bleak” about politics and the anti-elite movement of rising up against the lifestyle Anna embodies. Instead, his play’s more interested in ‘if you can’t beat them, join them.’ “That’s an ugly part of humanity. It’s so easy on social media to gesture about the change you want, but maybe what you actually want is just envying what those people have, rather than wanting to overthrow it and create a new system.”

Despite the play’s focus on wealth and extravagance, he doesn’t believe theatre should rely on vast budgets or lavish sets. Conservative spending is “absolutely fine”, especially in an industry where he sees pay distributed very unevenly. “Sometimes you see shows in subsidised theatres and they look bloated, or money has been overspent on sets. I don’t think more money means better work. When I go to a subsidised London theatre and it’s not good enough, it makes me really angry because it’s expensive and tourists come to see it.”

Charlton sees now as a time to reprioritise, amidst “an even greater pressure on theatre to justify its existence post-pandemic” after we’ve been addicted to a Netflix diet of binge-watching over lockdown. The streaming platform has jumped on this story themselves, but Charlton eschewed the “fairly straightforward, authorised biopic of the story” they’ve chosen. “I wanted to muddy the story. The play’s got two actors but vicious multi-roling that requires them to play different identities all the time.” It’s this theme of identity and trying on personality which he believes is “the most important thing in theatre” and makes this an “inherently theatrical story.”

He hopes theatre like this will overcome the challenge to present something “that’s going to make people leave the house and pay more than their Netflix subscription.” And he’s encouraged by Friedman’s gesture of confidence in opening with three new writers, revivifying often “lazy and staid” theatre programming. “I really don’t think we need any more David Hare plays. There’re a lot of older white male writers whose best work is behind them and need to be put out to pasture. It’s nice to think theatre might refresh and find new ways of putting on new voices.”

It’s not just the writers, but the function of the writing. “People want a level of escapism and pertinence in the work, and theatre can be on-the-nose and painfully relevant sometimes in its reflection and themes — it could entertain in a less didactic way.” Indeed, he feels his play is perhaps the “least politically important” of the RE:EMERGE season: it speaks to contemporary ideas, but is “setting out to entertain first.” His story about elevating social strata, coupled with his ambition and the force of Friedman behind him, should raise his own status in British writing talent.

Anna X is playing until 4 August at the Harold Pinter Theatre. For more information and tickets, visit the RE:EMERGE website.

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