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Anna in the Tropics

Nilo Cruz
Hampstead Theatre
(2004)

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While Hampstead Theatre has not had great success with British new writing since its move from the much-loved Portakabin, it is beginning to build a relationship with some of the most important minority writers from the USA.

Following plays by Stephen Adly Guirgis and Dael Orlandersmith (Yellowman also directed by Indhu Rubasingham), artistic director Anthony Clark has now brought over Anna in the Tropics, the first play by a Latino writer to win the 2003 Pulitzer Prize.

It is amazing that no twentieth century Hispanic play won the award but pleasing that such a heart-warming play, which opened on Broadway last winter, should have broken the duck. There, it featured Jimmy Smits as the ageing heartthrob, Daphne Rubin-Vega as the unhappy beauty Conchita and Priscilla Lopez as the mother, Ofelia. In Britain, there is an apparent dearth of Latino actors as the corresponding parts are played by Enzo Cilenti (more Latin than Latino), Rachel Stirling and Diana Quick respectively.

The play is set amongst Cuban immigrants in a cigar factory in Tampa during the prohibition era. The age-old traditions that are symbolised by the arrival of a new lector, or story teller, are threatened by their own industrial revolution.

The arrival of the handsome Juan Julian (Cilenti) changes the lives of the factory workers forever, as he brings a world of romantic dreams from home. The women are entranced and the men jealous. Indeed, the youngest daughter of the family, Marela, played enthusiastically by Lorraine Burroughs, is so excited at her first sighting that she wets herself.

While her powerful mother Ofelia (the ever excellent Miss Quick) is calmer, her life is also in a state of flux. This is because her husband Santiago (played by Joseph Mydell) has almost gambled away his factory to his Americanised half-brother, Peter Polycarpou's frustrated Cheche, a man who hates lectors because he lost his wife to one.

As the lector reads Anna Karenina to occupy the workers' minds while they roll tobacco, the parallels between the characters in icy Moscow and those in front of us become increasingly obvious, never more so than when Miss Stirling's character, Conchita, deserts her husband for the welcoming arms of her own Vronsky.

The play builds to a fine and dramatic finale almost worthy of a Tolstoy, as a new cigar brand is launched and then suddenly what had been joyous becomes increasingly dark. Not only are the lives of the individuals never likely to be the same again, but their whole culture is undergoing a change from which it will not recover.

Nilo Cruz' script is packed with beautiful imagery and much humour. This comes through in Indhu Rubasingham's production but the English cast with their varying accents never quite catch the Cuban atmosphere and steamy passions on which the play relies. Even so, Anna in the Tropics is well worth a visit to see a fine work by one of America's most promising young playwrights.

Philip reviewed this play at the Royale Theatre, New York, in 2003

Reviewer: Philip Fisher