Venue: West Yorkshire Playhouse
Even before I sat down, the epic task that faced this production of Anna Karenina was evident. Trying to fit Tolstoy’s 900-page Russian epic into two hours of stage time was never going to be a walk in the park, nor should it be. Tolstoy’s novel spends it time not only following the affair between Anna and her lover, Vronsky, but the unhappy marriage of Anna’s brother Oblonsky and his wife Dolly; as well as the resolution of the unrequited love Levin, an agricultural farmer, has for Dolly’s sister, Katy. Add to that unquenchable thirsts for happiness, some social injustice, rumblings of an oncoming revolution and a lot of supressed females living under a crippling patriarchy – you’ve got yourself a Russian classic.
Surprising, then, that this production doesn’t simply collapse under the weight of its source material. It’s self-assured, stylized (it couldn’t really be otherwise) and sufficiently absorbing. Opening with a dimming into darkness, candlelight and chanting of prayer before hurtling into the plight of Oblonsky’s adultery, it certainly grabs your attention. Simplistic staging has the floor paved over with a rectangle of soil unearthed in the centre – a nice tribute to the constant moving between town and the country of the various couples, searching in each for some sense of contentment. The only other major feature is the constant use of two carriages on wheels for everything from trains to separate rooms or even for on-looking characters to sit and watch other scenes. Effective, though strange in that they remain unused in the (spoiler alert) staging of Anna’s demise. Anna’s suicide is reliant on lighting and sound only, despite the imagery of the train and tracks the carriages produce throughout.
The production’s strongest feature was its supporting cast. Ryan Early’s Oblonsky got the most laughs as the overtly anxious and sufficiently self-absorbed adulterer, who continually worries that his ‘wonderful wife’ won’t understand his insatiable appetite for, let’s say, the nursery maid of his children. Comic, with a side order of chilling amorality – brilliant. The physicality of Jonathan Keeble’s Karenin also produced a fair few chuckles, though he managed this without harming the journey he takes from donnish rationale to a man crippled by a wife destroying his honour and reputation. Others, such as Donna Berlin and Anthony Barclay, who were required to play several parts in rapid succession, did so with great confidence. The gradual reconciliation of John Cummins’ Levin and Gillian Saker’s Katy was beautifully understated in its believability.
The greatest hurdle of any production of Anna Karenina is, in one fell swoop, to seduce audiences into believing – and even rooting for – the violent passion of Anna and Vronsky, and then to break their hearts as the relationship crumbles under Anna’s paranoia and Vronsky’s self-loathing. Ony Uhiara’s Anna was its best at the paranoia stage, though the problem was that her tone and manner were the same throughout. Her Anna lacked the vital seductive quality required to make audiences fall in love with her as Vronsky does. The crucial empathy of the audience was lacking; you didn’t feel as though you were travelling with Anna from socialite to lover, to suspicious mistress. The intensity of Robert Gilbert’s Vronsky fared a little better, but attempts to stage the whirlwind romance also felt a little forced – you could almost feel Tolstoy turning in his grave as their fateful dance moved from traditional classical waltz to throbbing bass and interpretative hand swirling.
The pace of the production was probably more to blame for this lack of empathetic connection between lovers and audience. While the racing scene transitions (often resulting in an on-stage collision of two scenes) produced a tangible energy, character development suffered for it. This was Anna Karenina stripped back a bit too far. But its confidence, very respectable ensemble and ability to touch on all the core existentialism of Tolstoy’s classic left you feeling glad you went, and eager to revisit Tolstoy’s superior narrative.