Anna in the Tropics
Hampstead Theatre, London, until 8 January. Phone 020 7449 4200
The play opens in 1930s Florida, when Cubans fleeing the brutal regime often ended up working in the great cigar factories of Tampa.
The workers here enlivened their monotonous but highly skilled work by collectively hiring lectors—entertainers who would discuss current affairs and politics in the morning, and read literature ranging from Zola to Shakespeare in the long afternoons.
Though the lectors were often seen as dangerous agitators by employers, the largely illiterate workforce fought hard to keep them.
Unfortunately this Pulitzer Prize winning play fails its fascinating setting, and instead collapses into cloying nostalgia for the mythical days when people enjoyed the slow pace of life with a slow-burning cigar.
The basic plot is that of the fun-loving family of Santiago, owner of the small cigar factory, resisting the modernising attempts of their dour Uncle Chester. It is Santiago’s wife, Ofelia, who hires the lector, and his romantic reading of Anna Karenina is incorporated into the family’s romantic tribulations.
But the lector is the voice of tradition in this play, and Chester seeks to drown him out with the din of the new machines.
The most irritating element of the play was the tendency for most of the characters to speak in a faux-poetic style that apparently is meant to evoke charming ethnic wisdom.
For example, when Santiago’s daughter Marela defends her right to dream of romance, she talks of how bicycles dream of becoming boys, and pearls of becoming women. The other women then nod sagely and say that chairs dream of being gazelles.
It is a credit to the cast that they manage to make this bearable.
The play was sometimes amusing, and the acting was great. But the plot was largely divorced from character development or historical context.