KAREN Vickery may well be just about the most sought-after actor in Canberra, but she’s really hit her straps when it comes to her role in the next production at Canberra Rep, Alma de Groen’s play “The Woman in the Window”.
For Vickery, a former NIDA lecturer who came here some years ago to work at one of our national institutions, is also a gifted Russian linguist with expertise in the drama of Russian playwright Ostrovsky. Now she gets to play the lead role of Anna Akhmatova, one of Russia’s most famous poets.
First published in 1998, “The Woman in the Window” is widely regarded as de Groen’s masterpiece, a play in which she pleads for creativity in a world where economics and wealth seem the only imperatives, argued through a remarkable personality of the past but with a window into the future, too.
Notionally set in Stalin’s Russia, the play shows the celebrated poet Akhmatova forbidden to write. But she is too famous to murder, so is sentenced to appear in her window twice a day to satisfy the secret police that she is still obeying house arrest.
“Maybe it’s not true,” Vickery says, “but what is true is that she lived in penury in a former mansion divided up into squalid rooms with shared bathrooms and kitchens, where everybody was spying on everybody else.”
But Russia was Akhmatova’s spiritual home and her inspiration, so during the horrific Siege of Leningrad, she elected to stay with her own people, to be a witness to their suffering.
“Akhmatova was a woman living on so many levels,” she says. “She had many men in her life, including the artist Modigliani and three husbands.
“She also saw many friends shot or purged in the Gulag, and when she went to Tashkent, some people thought she was a shaman.”
She certainly experienced psychological connections with people and playwright de Groen takes advantage of this, giving us a glimpse into the future as she connects with a young poet, Rachel, both witnesses to the endurance of women and the power of art.
In fact the play follows two storylines. In a future world, the young “Conference Stress-Consultant” Rachel Sekerov, played by Zoe Swan, searches for what is missing in a sterile society where literature, science and art have all but vanished, a world strangely reminiscent of Stalin’s Russia, the sense of which dominates the play.
Akhmatova is a gift of a role to Vickery, a powerful actor known to wider Canberra audiences for her part in Pigeonhole Theatre’s production of “Switzerland” last year, but this part is dear to her Russian heart.
Vickery‘s formidable, highly educated female ancestors were aristocratic Russian émigrés to the Far East, families who ended up in Shanghai or Xinjiang as part of the exodus from the Russian Revolution. Alas, it was out of the frying pan into the fire for their children, many of whom headed south to Australia when Mao’s revolutionary forces triumphed in 1949.
Vickery grew up in Melbourne hearing Russian all around her, although for the sake of her father, an Australian lawyer, it was mostly spoken amongst her female relatives.
“I picked it up,” she says, “and I fell in love with the literature.”
So not only is Vickery able to give director Liz Bradley a bit of help on those pesky Russian pronunciations, but her background – she shares Tartar ancestry with Akhmatova (both of them being descended from Genghis Khan) – prepares well for the spiritual experiences of a brilliant woman, confined and repressed.
Although a dominant figure, Vickery is not alone on stage, backed up by an all-star cast, with Lainie Hart as Akhmatova’s friend Lili Kalinovskaya, Zoe Swan as Rachel, Michael Cooper as her poet-lover Sandor and Alex McPherson as her fellow “stress-consultant” Maren.
Chris Baldock scores a role-to-kill-for as the sinister KGB agent Korzh, while Thomas Hyslop plays his gormless sidekick Stetsky. Amanda Brown plays Anna’s neighbour and informer Tusya, and Marli Haddeill appears as The Auditor.
De Groen invites us to think that Anna and Rachel have a mysterious spiritual connection, through which the play speaks of survival, dignity and the humour of displaced people.
“The Woman in the Window”, Canberra Rep Theatre, September 5-21. Book at canberrarep.org.au or 6257 1950.