Review: Anna Bella Eema, Arcola Theatre

It’s something of a relief that Anna Bella Eema opens with an explicit warning that past, present and future are really only divided because that’s how we like them – that isolation elevates the imagination to the same level as the senses. This whole play is reliant on the fact that everyone in it, to varying degrees, has created their own system of logic in which they choose to exist. It drifts in form between moments of shared dialogue, and something which I suppose is storytelling, relaying events as they may or may not have happened either to us or to another unseen spectator. 

To dwell too much on what was or wasn’t ‘real’ would be to betray the nature of this piece. Of course, none of it really happened and all of it is fictional. Aside from that, there’s still little point in separating the believable from the credible in the world of the play, because the whole point is that is really, honestly, does not matter.

Because whether you were led into the crawlspace by a girl you made of dirt, or whether you went there of your own accord, your home will still soon be uprooted for the new freeway.

With the notion of ‘truth’ relegated to the side for a moment, we can focus on what this play is really built on, While plenty of pillars hold up this house, one of the most pronounced is its recognition that lonely, bright ten-year-old girls are some of the most soul-snatchingly creative and deeply arcane people on this earth. With the rusted American South slowly decaying in the background, a girl and a mother retreat deeper into their own delusions or imaginations. 

In many ways, this is a piece built on pairs, or clashes. Past and present, imaginary and real, inside and out, that which exists and that which is yet to come. These are most easily dealt with when kept definitely separate, and the balance act becomes far trickier when they’re allowed to merge so boundlessly. In general, this pays off, although sometimes the clarity suffers perhaps a little too much.

Although I think it could afford to be a touch shorter overall, the use of the set to create sound and texture is wonderful. For the majority, this is quite a physically static piece, with great reliance on sound. The decision to create this sound around noises made by set pieces and props is brilliant. It’s a constant reminder that this world is being built by the people in it, and that it’s whatever they want it to be. The artificiality is never more than a couple of steps away.

At this stage, Anna Bella Eema doesn’t always feel entirely smooth. It does, however, feel like a heartfelt and compassionate response to a rapidly changing world. It’s tender without being patronising, and that’s worth so much more.

Anna Bella Eema is playing the Arcola Theatre until 12 October. For more information and tickets, visit the Arcola Theatre website