Gatsby, Ripley and the fake heiress: inside the tech fantasy Anna X – The Guardian

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Theatre

Journalist turned playwright Joseph Charlton on how the Anna Sorokin case inspired his play about identity and power, starring Emma Corrin

One night, while out with friends in London and looking for a place open late, Joseph Charlton decided to talk his way into Soho House. It wouldn’t be that difficult, he reasoned. He’d been working as a journalist and recently had a meeting at the private members’ club, so it was just a matter of using someone else’s name to gain entry. He and his friends paid their own tab, but there was a Ripley-ish thrill to accessing a place off limits to all but a few.

Charlton references Patricia Highsmith’s con artist Tom Ripley several times when discussing his play Anna X, which is part of the Re:Emerge season, created by producer Sonia Friedman, to bring new voices to the West End.

Anna X is inspired by – though not explicitly about – Anna Sorokin, the woman who pretended to be a wealthy German heiress, conning members of New York high society out of more than $200,000. Sorokin ended up going to prison and has since been given a Netflix deal. Charlton read a Vanity Fair article that detailed Sorokin’s ability to present herself as wealthy while getting others to pay her way. It piqued his interest as a writer, but it was never his intention to tell her story. Instead he wanted to try and imagine the life of someone who had come to America with aspirations and a wish to remake themselves.

Anna Sorokin during her trial. She inspired Charlton’s play Anna X. Photograph: Richard Drew/AP

He had also read about the social network Raya, which was then a dating app for the rich, and he grew interested in how parts of the internet were becoming increasingly exclusive, and the “appealing contradiction” inherent in this. He describes Anna X as a Gatsby-like narrative, a play about people using technology to pretend to be other people while stifling their own feelings. “Social media and technology encourage us to wear a mask. At what point does the mask start eating your face?”

Charlton grew up in Hexham, outside Newcastle, and went from state school to study English at Oxford University. It was, he says, like entering a world he didn’t know existed. Sharing a house with playwrights, he became interested in theatre. “I’d always wanted to write but never felt like I could.”

He worked for a year as a teacher before becoming a journalist; he brings an investigative sensibility to his playwriting. During his time at the Independent, he briefly worked as a media advisor to the owner Evgeny Lebedev, an experience he diplomatically describes as “odd”. There is, he says, “an upper elite part of the world that hangs out with each other” and for a brief time he had a window into it.

An interest in tech – both its impact on how we live and the people behind it, the entrepreneurs and CEOs – was evident in his previous play, Brilliant Jerks, which drew on interviews Charlton conducted with employees of Uber. While there is a tradition of UK dramatists scrutinising public institutions, private institutions are not often interrogated in the same way. But Charlton is fascinated by the way in which ideas have become currency, how “concept, as opposed to craft, has become very important in the world.”

‘Concept, as opposed to craft, has become very important’ … Joseph Charlton. Photograph: Dan Carroll

Brilliant Jerks had a short run at the Vault festival, in the tunnels under Waterloo station, in 2018. Uber got wind the play was happening and soon, half the people in the audience worked for the company. “There was laughter at jokes that no one else ever got, which was quite pleasing,” Charlton says.

Given his interest in exclusive spaces, it makes sense that he is now part of the writers’ room of Industry, the BBC/HBO series about competitive young graduates at an investment bank. He describes the writers’ room experience as very American, in the amount of time they put into the development of the series and the way HBO takes seriously having many different voices contributing to the show. Brilliant Jerks is also being developed for the BBC.

The West End run of Anna X, which also started life at the Vault festival, stars Nabhaan Rizwan, who played the unfortunate Hari in Industry, and Emma Corrin, whose fame has rocketed since she started playing Diana in Netflix’s The Crown. They were doing a workshop for the play in November and Corrin was being hounded by the press. “The irony was just extraordinary,” Charlton says. “It’s been amazing meeting someone and then seeing that fame happen to them.” He strongly believes that commercial theatre should be accessible, and he’ll be pleased if Corrin’s casting means some of her fans end up coming to the theatre for the first time.

Before now, Charlton’s plays had only been seen in the cramped, damp spaces of the Vaults beneath Waterloo. To have a run in the West End, after theatres have been closed for so long, might be the result of what he calls a “happy accident of lockdown”, but it granted him entry to a space that can often feel impenetrable to emerging writers. “It feels phenomenal.”

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