Journalism 101: don’t become the news. Don’t let your personal life bleed into your reporting, and god forbid you ever find yourself in the crosshairs of an angry online mob. But staying out of the picture is harder when you’re a TV journalist, and exponentially more so when you’re a woman. Add social media trolls to the mix and you have a toxic cocktail that can – and has – driven journalists to the brink.
Anna K. is the latest play by Suzie Miller, and like her international hit Prima facie, which starred Jodie Comer on the West End, it’s an unflinching portrait of a tough woman under outrageous pressure. Anna is a household name: a top-rating TV journalist known for her hard-hitting interviews of her. When her de ella love life becomes the subject of a news scandal, she finds the world turning on her from all sides.
Miller is one of Australia’s most successful and prolific playwrights, so it’s perhaps not surprising that she’s been on the receiving end of public criticism. One of her earlier plays de ella focused on a character who had killed a child when they were young and explored the potential for such a person’s rehabilitation as an adult. Then the shock jocks came at her.
“I was probably too new to the world of talkback radio to know how dreadful it was,” she says. “I was constantly told that this was an appalling suggestion, that anyone could possibly be rehabilitated after they’d done something so evil. It was harrowing. I really stayed off social media and I kept to myself.”
Caroline Craig, who plays Anna K, has had her own run-ins with the media. “I naively took a few photos when I was pregnant, bad photos in a mirror thinking I’d share it with Mum and my friends.” After posting these to Facebook, she received a message from her brother de ella: “’There’s photos of you pregnant in a mirror, you look really bad, on the Daily Mail website.’ I was like, oh my god… I don’t want them to own photos of me and my kids. That’s off.”
Like Anna, Craig has also seen first-hand the way that the immediacy of TV can create an illusion of intimacy and personal connection among fans. When she took over from Lisa McCune as a lead in Blue Heelers, “people hated my character. They hated me. I was at the supermarket and this old lady hit me with a bag of frozen peas and said: ‘You killed Maggie Doyle!’”
Craig says that compared to her latest role, her experience of celebrity has been relatively minor. “But I didn’t enjoy it at all. My uni friends were always like ‘you love it,’ but I’d be having a fight with my boyfriend, being dumped by the side of the road, I’ll have had a car crash, and people would be like: ‘Can you do a photo with my sister?’”
Miller is friends with several journalists, including Leigh Sales and Annabel Crabb. She was partly inspired to write Anna K. “Having watched people go through Twitter storms and the level of hate they get. It’s terrifying to me.”
She began to think about public shaming: how it serves to silence and punish individuals who refuse to conform, and acts as a warning to others. Her research on her took her from Jon Ronson’s bestseller So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed all the way back to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. It struck her that not all shaming is the same. The shaming of women takes on different accents to the shaming of men; so too does the belittlement or humiliation of people of colour, of different classes or sexualities.
Eventually her reading led her back to Anna Karenina“how she was shamed out of her mind”.
In Tolstoy’s classic, the titular young woman leaves her husband and son to take up a new life with her young lover, but the rebuke she faces from all corners of society escalates to a fatal level.
Anna K. isn’t an adaptation of Tolstoy. There’s a family resemblance, but Miller’s play is both a riff on and a riposte to the novel.
“[Tolstoy’s] Anna was very much the warning that if you have a passionate nature and you act outside the conformed values you’re dead, basically. You can’t exist. But I wanted to find a way that my Anna could exist,” says Miller.
To prepare for the role, Craig has explored the experiences of other women who’ve had to weather online maelstroms. “It’s really damaging. It’s been fascinating doing research about what has happened to people like Leigh Sales or someone like Clementine Ford. It’s horrible.”
The way that such hatred takes on gendered aspects can’t be ignored, says Miller. “I’ve spoken to some journalists who had really never had mental health crises in their lives, who really went under when they had this hate mail and very sexually violent messages sent their way… It had an effect where they started to take seriously the sort of options that were put to them by the trolls and the haters online.”
“The thing about the internet,” says Craig, “is that you think it’s wonderful, it’s a great opportunity for diversity, for everyone to have an opinion, and all these voices to be equally heard. But really it’s just amplifying a lot of the really patriarchal, oppressive shit that we have to live with.”
Anna K. isn’t a morality play, but it’s a deeply ethical one. It does not ask us to judge its central figure in her – but of course we do, because we’ve been raised in the same culture as the people who find her so objectionable. It’s hard not to become self-conscious in that moment, however, and wonder how different we are to the trolls and haters ourselves.
Miller’s script is also much more sophisticated than a tale of right and wrong – Anna is too real to be angelic, and there are moments when you might wonder if her detractors sort of have a point. She might just want to live according to her own terms de ella, but does power bring with it a certain level of responsibility to others?
“I know women who would go, ‘well, once you’ve got a platform it’s not just about you any more’,” says Miller. “It’s about maintaining an authenticity to the people you’re speaking to, and you make sure you don’t get cancelled, because that platform shows women they can be up there.”
However, the play never falls back on easy solutions. Its relationship to moral arguments it presents is as slippery as its relationship to the story from which it takes its name – respectful, but wary.
“Maybe Tolstoy was making a comment about the social system,” says Miller, “but the comment still meant that Anna Karenina went crazy and put herself under a train. It’s almost like a warning to women. I didn’t want my play to be a warning, I wanted it to be a call to action.”
Anna K. is at the Malthouse Theatre, August 12 – September 4. The NT Live film version of Prima faciestarring Jodie Comer, is screening at Cinema Nova.