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Anna Karenina (Jack Studio Theatre, London): Review

anna karenina Dancing with desire. Ellia Jacob (left) and Will Mytum (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Davor Tovarlaza.

Although with striking vision and intelligent verve, like the protagonist, Anna Karenina makes some questionable decisions.

Anna Karenina is a socialite in high society, married to a noble politician. But when she encounters Count Vronsky, she risks her status for the cause of love. Elsewhere, Levin tries to find meaning in love and life on his rural estate far away from the hedonistic circles of Russian nobility.

Following on from their celebrated takes on Shakespeare, from a modern Titus Andronicus to a wonderful gender-flipped The Taming of the ShrewArrows & Traps head east to tackle this Russian masterpiece.

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Dancing with desire. Ellie Jacob (left) and Will Mytum (right). Photograph: Courtesy of Davor Tovarlaza.

Adaptation

Tolstoy is arguably as famous for their complex and grand novels as they are infamous for their verbosity. An ordinary copy of Anna Karenina can come in at nearly 900 pages long, and the original story itself was published as a serial of no less than eight parts. Adapting the famed novel for the stage was always going to be Herculean task. However, Helen Edmundson finds some clever devices to abridge and condense where possible, yet without taking much away from the book.

The most notable device Edmundson employs is a narrative framing where Anna and Levin meet in the ether and narrate parts of their stories to each other as they happen. This mean parts of plots’ progression can be summed up quickly and moved forward in conversation between the two. But surprisingly, it also gives Edmundson an opportunity to explore Anna Karenina in a different way to the book, drawing out characterisations and musings about motives and morals from these conversations, adding interesting takes on both Anna and Levin. Edmundson litters Anna Karenina’s text with likewise as ingenious little cuts and takes that keep the pace but never without taking away from Tolstoy’s original intentions, or missing anything vital from the luscious narrative. Such little changes include Edmundson’s tweaking of dialogue to be a bit more relaxed and modern, really capturing the acclaimed realism that Anna Karenina become lauded for, without feeling overly arch. Yet, there are still plenty of whimsical and poetic passages, especially in Levin’s narration of his story (cleverly juxtaposed against Anna’s less decorated accounts), that keeps Anna Karenina rich and fascinating.

There are, however, some little negligences, like never quite explaining the motive behind Vronsky’s volunteer military service being the hope for indirect suicide (a sharp satire that got Tolstoy in trouble when the original serial was published). But when you’re faced with staging something as epic as Anna Karenina, something’s got the give. What Edmundson has chopped doesn’t make any fundamental changes to the original narrative whatsoever, so it will be only the most vehement of purists that would have an issue with this.

Even so, “reduction” really does sell Anna Karenina short, as the play still comes in at over two and a half hours long. But throughout Anna Karenina, Edmundson really does show a shrewd and incredibly knowledgeable approach to the text. Throughout the entire show there is still the unfathomable complexities of characters, their faults, hypocrisies, addictions, and mental health issues, being a sounding board for the exquisite depth that makes Anna Karenina so celebrated. Edmundson’s adaptation doesn’t swing an axe, but makes precise little snips and slight reconfigurations to ensure that whilst brisk and pacey, it’s still as comprehensive, intricate, and true to the original novel with the odd new angle. The results is a version that’s as engrossing and astonishing as the original.

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Light motif. Ellie Jacob as Anna Karenina in ‘Anna Karenina’. Photograph: Courtesy Davor Tovarlaza.

Direction & Production

Directing, Ross McGregor does well to do capture the spirit of Edmundson’s adaptation, especially in keeping its inherent brisk pace. Although getting on for three hours, the masterstroke of the production is that you hardly notice the time go by, because between McGregor and Edmundson you’re incredibly involved with Anna Karenina from start to finish. Although there are plenty of moments to slowly soak up some of the more tragic and deeper moments, scenes are never allowed to loiter for long. Helping this is some great moments of Will Pinchin’s movement direction that add visual swirls alongside Jane Munro and Nancy Kettle’s dance choreography, and Gareth Kearns’ sound design of filmic underscoring at parts adding an aural layer of energy on top of it all. Add to that some fantastic visual moments that make up for the otherwise bare stage with seductive flourishes, brocaded by McGregor’s gorgeous costume design.

However, the main issue with Arrows & Traps’ production are some of the stylistic choices. Anna Karenina is celebrated for a level of realism in its portrayals of characters and social caprice that was unprecedented at the time. Yet, McGregor opts for moments of stylised theatre in more than a handful of moments in Anna Karenina that belie Tolstoy’s detailed handiwork, and also parts of Edmundson’s adaptation. For example, Edmundson’s idea of death pursuing and being pursued by Anna is very clever and interesting. However, when the cloaked reaper comes on muttering French, any foreboding is dissipated by exaggerated movement and gestures that make their presence feel more modern interpretive dance than Gothic harbinger. Elsewhere, quirky physical theatre and moments of outright comedy, although certainly often fun and imaginative, jolt you too harshly from the ether of Anna Karenina’s grand human dramaundermining moments of gravitas.

But it’s difficult to too harshly critique McGregor over these indiscretions. After all, these bring the variety and reliefs of pace and timbre that are key to making the 260 minute affair fly by. It’s just that something less pronounced would probably complement Anna Karenina better.

Elsewhere, Beth Gibbs’ lighting design, working mostly with white spotlights, really lift some of the aforementioned striking visuals, but sometimes leaves parts of Anna Karenina dimly lit, making you never sure if characters are being intentionally left literally in the dark or not.

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Cry of the country. David Paisley as Levin. Photograph: Courtesy of Davor Tovarlaza.

Cast

Really propelling Anna Karenina along are the two leads. David Paisley as Levin, although melodramatic, ekes a tortured sincerity. Paisley makes Levin’s moral disgust yet base fascination with Anna a conflict that electrifies both character and scene. Through all of Paisley’s arch veneer, their performance brings out a lavish silky complexity that really compels.

Ellie Jacob as Anna breezes in with exuberant class at any given moment, really embodying the notion that glamour follows Anna wherever she goes, even in scandal. But what really marks Jacob’s performance is their unbridled frankness, making Anna seem incredibly organic and human and on a level that resonates with the audience, reeling us into Anna’s whirlwind tragedy with magnetism and fascination.

Adam Elliott as Karenin also gives an unexpectedly alluring performance. Although starting out with deliberately insincere pomp, Elliott eventually breaks down into a man torn between fundamental pride and a deeply wounded love for Anna. It’s a palpable conflict that draws you into Karenin as a character more than you would think, especially when Elliott’s airs and graces clash against Jacob’s fluid and natural maelstrom.

Verdict

Whilst some of Anna Karenina’s stylistic decisions might irk some viewers, these don’t take away from the fact that this is a bold and pacey production with an astounding knowledge and appreciation for Tolstoy’s masterpiece underpinning it. A heady waltz through Russian tragedy, even if it’s footwork does falter at points.

Anna Karenina plays at the Jack Studio Theatre, SE4 2DH, until 2 April 2016. Tickets are £14 (concessions available). To book, visit www.brockleyjack.co.uk.