“I burn a candle in the window till dawn,” wrote a young Anna Akhmatova in 1912, "there’s no one at all I miss.” At twenty-two, the woman who would go on to become Russia’s cherished twentieth century poet had published her first book. As the century progressed, and her early acclaimed love poems gave way to musings on national terror, she would come to miss a great deal. Akhmatova led a life ripe with dramatic tensions that Rebecca Schull examines in her new play On Naked Soil: Imagining Anna Akhmatova, an homage to the poet. Romantically linked to several prominent national figures, Akhmatova found her love life deeply affected by Russia’s tumultuous politics. Lenin executed her first husband, the poet Nikolai Gumiliov, in 1921. Her third husband, art historian Nikolai Punin, died in a labor camp. She also saw her son repeatedly arrested and sent to the camps despite her tireless efforts to have him released, and many of her close friends and members of her literary circle were executed, imprisoned, or exiled, as their writing, like hers, became censored material.
The greatest accomplishment of On Naked Soil lies in its spot-on dramatic realization of the tone of Akhmatova’s poetry itself. Political and personal hardships make for dynamic art, yet Akhmatova’s short verses, with their simple syntax and strict meter, resist indulgent melodrama. Her work is astonishing for what the poet Joseph Brodsky called its “note of controlled terror” and it is precisely that note which On Naked Soil strikes so remarkably.
The three-character play features Schull in the title role, as it moves back and forth between the late 1930’s and the late 1960’s, and depicts Akhmatova in dialogue with her friends Nadezhda Mendelstam (Lenore Loveman) and Lydia Chukovskaya (Sue Cremin), a young writer who chronicled their meetings. Early scenes between Anna and Lydia come off a bit like convenient devices through which to relate the life story of the great poet; she has only to respond to the questions of her congenial protégé.
Later, these early exchanges are mimicked when Lydia comes to the apartment to memorize verse in secret as Anna relates bland stories of her childhood, lest anyone listen and become suspicious. The tense scene articulates the danger of merely writing down controversial words – and the power of Akmatova’s poetry – with a whisper rather than a scream. What sets Anna and Lydia’s exchanges apart from more formulaic writing about mentor relationships in times of crisis is how they allow audiences to become acquainted with Akhmatova: neither a proud prima donna nor humbled wise woman. In response to Lydia’s longing for a way to cope with a missing husband and endangered child, she tells her: “It’s very simple. I have no advice for you.” They drink a lot of tea and talk about the past. That’s in keeping with the spirit of Akhmatova’s poems, which favor description over prescription, and under the direction of Susan Einhorn, even exposition is fraught with a sense of imminent danger.
Given that, as a writer, Akhmatova rejected the symbolist movement, it’s appropriate that a play about her life depicts her through realism. Even when the characters speak in Akhmatova’s verse, they do so as realistically drawn characters reciting beautifully memorized poems, not characters using language as a form of dislocation. That contrasts to Schull’s performative recordings of Akmatova’s poetry that sometimes play over scene transitions; escape from the grey world of the play comes through its use of mixed media. Aaron Rhyne’s video projections include both photographic images of the characters’ real-life counterparts as wells as surreal footage of their memories. Portions of Akmatova’s texts are projected both over video images and directly onto the enormous storm clouds that form the backdrop of Ursula Belden’s scenic design.
At best, the projections and the play work in tandem to create a sense of both historical import and artistic truth, as in a rare moment of Anna alone onstage, collapsing into choked sobs. As she weeps, her writing is projected against the back wall; her private hysteria never overwhelms the steadfast nature of her writing. Rather than dramatize the personal turmoil that fueled the restrained power of her poetry, On Naked Soil uses mixed media to examine the fundamental tensions between the writer’s life and work.
Distilling a famous poet’s personal history and her poems, along with the course of 20th century Russian history, into a three character play is no small undertaking, and at times On Naked Soil is difficult to follow. Audiences would do well to look over the helpful program notes, which include a chronology of the play’s events. Yet, both newcomers to Akhmatova and longtime fans will likely come away from the production inspired by its source material – and eager to become more familiar with it.