Memo to the NSA: Holly Twyford is not a terrorist. Her Google searches might raise red flags, but the acclaimed local actress swears they’re research for “Edgar & Annabel,” the play she’s directing at Studio 2nd Stage. The story, by ascendant British playwright Sam Holcroft, follows a pair of rebels living in a fictional surveillance state.
At least it was fictional. Edward Snowden was still working for Dell when Holcroft wrote the script in 2011, commissioned by London’s National Theatre. And Snowden hadn’t yet leaked a cache of classified documents when Twyford read the play and agreed to direct.
“[The play] was born out of spending some time reading about Stasi Germany and reading about Stalin and dictatorships and how lucky we are in England not to live in one,” Holcroft said, sitting beside Twyford on break from rehearsal while visiting Washington recently.
When the production premiered in London, the Guardian gave it high marks for the funny-yet-taut story. Edgar and Annabel, who have a secret mission (the details of which I won’t divulge here), carefully follow a script when speaking to each other in order to fly under the government’s eavesdropping radar.
The scenario seemed fairly outlandish to Holcroft — until this year.
“I feel completely gobsmacked,” the playwright said of the extent of surveillance in Britain and the United States. “It seemed like it was a huge stretch to imagine the audience could believe in the world of Edgar and Annabel. Very rarely do you write a play and it becomes more relevant.”
The play is the first in 2nd Stage’s British Invasion Festival. (“This is what an invasion looks like,” Holcroft joked gesturing to herself curled up on a couch. “A timid invasion,” Twyford added without missing a beat.) It’s difficult to put a fine point on what exactly makes the recent crop of up-and-coming English playwrights so singular, but Studio Theatre artistic director David Muse notices how fully these works seem destined for the stage. Recent American dramas might work just as well on screen — “August: Osage County,” for example, is coming soon to a multiplex near you — but these stories are meant to unfold onstage.
“Stylistically, [these new British plays] tend to do things that aren’t just simple contemporary realism,” Muse said.
That doesn’t mean they’re easy to produce. Directing the play has proven a challenge on many levels. Until this week, Twyford and Holcroft were Skyping and e-mailing to transform the British play into an American one, trading Transatlantic idioms (and learning a few new phrases along the way). But “Edgar & Annabel” also is complicated by its many layers. Characters might be discussing drinking beer and eating guacamole but consuming something else entirely, all to throw Big Brother off their scent. There’s a constant disconnect between what the audience is seeing and what it’s hearing.
“God bless the actors,” Twyford said. “They’re trying to do one thing, which has no relationship whatsoever to what they’re saying. But what they’re saying could be very important information.”
Oddly enough, the whole scenario mirrors another incident Holcroft experienced after writing “Edgar & Annabel.” At the end of 2011, she accompanied her boyfriend to North Korea on a research trip. He’s a freelance journalist, but because foreign journalists are rarely allowed in that country, he omitted that detail during the vetting process. The couple were told their hotel room probably would be bugged, but that warning evaporated as Holcroft marveled at a sunset from their hotel room window.
“I was looking out at the city, and when the sun goes down, the city fades to black because there’s very little electricity,” she recalled. “And so I was looking out the window and I said, ‘You have to take a photograph of this, because one day when you’re a famous journalist, you’ll really appreciate having it.’ And he ran across the room and threw his hand over my mouth.”
Suddenly, with visions of being marched to the border and interrogated, plus losing all that time and money, Holcroft burst into tears. So the pair quickly invented a reason she might be crying and pretended to be arguing. Luckily, everything turned out fine.
“We realized that you are probably recorded, but it’s highly unlikely that someone will actually listen to that recording, because they’re so understaffed,” she said with a laugh.
We can only hope the same thing goes for Twyford’s questionable Internet searches.
Through Jan. 5. Studio 2nd Stage,
1501 14th St. NW. 202-332-3300. www.studiotheatre.org. $30-$35.