NICK FERRIS reviews Anna X at VAULT Festival. 

Here is a play for the social media age: a frenetic rollercoaster ride of carefully curated Instagram updates, magazines and exhibitions where creative content is merely incidental, and Genesis, the invite-only ‘Tinder for celebrities’.

Dextrously squeezed into one hour by exciting up-and-coming director Daniel Raggett, Anna X captures the social milieu of New York’s creative millennial elite, and the desperate young people attempting to break in. Interlaced narratives present Anna, a fearlessly confident new player on the city’s art scene promising to champion new kinds of art and exhibition spaces, alongside Ariel, the founder of Genesis, who meets and falls in love with Anna one night at an absurdly-named ‘immersive nightlife experience’.

Both are newly arrived in New York, both intent on disrupting destinies their past lives dictated they should have followed. Ariel was set for life of liberal suburban conformity in San Francisco with his sweet-natured girlfriend from the Midwest, before suffering a sort of existential mid-youth crisis and deciding instead to try and make it big in the East. Anna’s background is more mysterious. An early monologue reveals a former life studying Fine Art at Goldsmiths, where an acquaintance provided her with the contacts necessary for her internship in New York.

As we witness Anna and Ariel glide between art shows, parties and hotel suites in varying states of intoxication, the play meets the touchstones necessary to qualify as a pertinent 2019 production. Playwright Joseph Charlton fills the script with juicy social and cultural satirical witticisms, describing rich girls at parties who survive on a diet of ‘tapas and cocaine’, and the magazine where ‘everyone is queer’, whose office at the top of a glass tower is filled with the typically commercial artwork of Jeff Koons and Tracey Emin.

Anna’s ambition and outsider status make her an object of intense fascination. While Joshua James, who plays Ariel, repeatedly changes his act to play other characters that appear, Rosie Sheehy, his opposite number, remains solely playing Anna until much later on. She is the enchanting and mystifying focal point of the narrative: someone always at the edgiest of parties, whom everybody knows and yet nobody really knows.

But Anna is a fraud. Her character is based on the real-life socialite figure of Anna Delvey, who was convicted of grand larceny in 2018 and is currently being held at Rikers Island penitentiary. Anna’s inheritance never materialises: her father is no Russian oligarch, but instead a Ukrainian lorry driver. Ariel’s existence also ruptures: away from his office, following Anna to parties or pursuing international expansion, he fails to notice problems with a Genesis software update before it is too late. Everyone, not just its heavily-vetted former clientele, can now access its servers.

The West Coast techie Ariel overreaches himself. In his attempts break out onto the New York creative scene, he forgets the rigid operating systems where he originally made his name. His experience parallels Anna’s own attempt to forge a new social position for herself before the system she manipulated spits her back out again. Their copious drinking and use of drugs in the throws of their relationship represents the hedonistic rush that it all was, with no sustainable, concrete grounding in reality.

But Anna X is also no simple cautionary tale of over-ambition. For everyone uses Genesis and everyone falls for Anna: the collapse of both of these ideas does not occur until late in the day when everyone is already fully invested. Both protagonists’ ability to get as far in as they do proves the speciousness of a whole social system, in its failure to call them out sooner. The theatre at the Waterloo Vaults, with its slimy bare-brick walls blackened with decades of mould and smoke, becomes the perfect space for this bleak vision of post-industrial sociological decline.

Art, personal relationships, culture, love: these are the subjects that Anna X powerfully satirises in its a postmodern tragedy of greedy ambition and fraud. The callous way that Anna in particular is able to manipulate these matters offers a commentary on their apparent meaninglessness in today’s egocentric metropolitan  scene. Anna might have lied about who she was, but in the end her absurd aspiration creates a far more captivating and authentic tale than anything else in the cultural landscape that she inhabits.

Anna X ran at VAULT Festival from the 13th-17th March. Find more information here.

Featured image courtesy of Lidia Crisafulli.