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June 15, 2011 / Siobhan Argent

The Woman in the Window

Published 15/6/11 by Arts Hub

Alma de Groen’s The Woman in the Window is a strong play with an Orwellian heart, although it’s sometimes let down by dodgy Russian accents and a hint of over-acting.

Directed by Douglas Montgomery, The Woman in the Window follows two storylines in separate time periods. The plot alternates between the dark and gloom of early-fifties Russia, where Anna Akhmatova (Milijana Cančar) and Lilli Kalinovskya (Joanne Trentini) work to preserve the former’s huge body of poetry and other literature for future generations, under the constant watch of Stalin’s police. Neighbour Tusya (Stevie Hall) dutifully frets over her neighbours and soon realises what her friendship with Anna and Lilli may cost her.

The second part is set in the future, an age in which ‘confidence girl’ Rachel Sekerov (Madeleine Stewart) is contemplating what life would be like without the now-ubiquitous, Big Brother-style surveillance system keeping her and humanity’s body of knowledge in strict order. Her boss Miz (Nicole Omeara, who also plays the supporting role of Maren, another confidence girl) is emotionless, a slavemaster who seems incapable of comprehending base human feeling. When Rachel meets a man who can offer her freedom (Anthony Winnick), she begins to contemplate what risks she’ll take for a chance at true liberty. Winnick’s role is a little two simple; he might love Rachel, as much as love counts in this real world, but he is a prop in Rachel’s story. Stewart does a solid job playing a girl who’s never felt grass, seen stars or been able to think for herself. She maintains enough enthusiasm to make her appear genuine, which shows some skill; this kind of role could have easily been overwhelmed by the innocence and naiveté that thread through it.

It is, however, Cančar’s performance as Akhmatova that is the most striking and interesting aspect of the storyline. Perhaps it helps that she used to reside in Sarajevo, but she executes the most authentic Russian accent of all the cast. Her character is a famous poet and writer who inspires the masses to continue pursuing the ideals of freedom, but has suffered enormously in her personal life. Cančar pulls off Anna’s nonchalance, bitterness, and utter disdain for Russian authority with an understated power that pays off. Where others might have overplayed the emotiveness of the role, Cančar wisely pulls back. Anna’s constant companion Lilli Kalinovskya (Joanne Trentini) is relatable, fiercely loyal and cleverly drawn; it only takes a raised eyebrow or skewed glance from Trentini to convey wry humour or worry. The police who track and intimidate them (Anthony Winnick and Tristan Hollands) are somewhat two-dimensional; their dialogue restricts them to the stereotypical roles of bully cops with tough-guy accents who only exist to show the audience what Anna and Lilli are up against.

The dialogue had some stumbling blocks to surmount. Awkward phrasing such as “When I’m dead, I’ll be more alive than here” stunted what were meant to be climactic moments of change. However, this became less common as the play progressed, with the production ending on a satisfyingly mysterious high note.

Given the cast only had five weeks notice before the curtain went up, it’s understandable the production might be a little shaky. But given their constraints, I’d argue they have little to be embarrassed about. The play itself shows consideration and careful construction, particularly given the interchanging time periods and the chronological befuddlery that occurs between Rachel and Anna later in the piece. Rachel seems a little too simply drawn as a working girl offered the chance for freedom by—wait for it—a man, but it’s Anna and Lilli’s timeline that is most affecting and relatable.


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