Anna Karenina – The Royal Lyceum Theatre

Written by Lesley Hart after Leo Tolstoy

Directed by Polina Kalinina

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Romance, parental love, jealousy, self-destruction, freedom, horse-riding, guilty consciences, and a decadent mountain of desire: pick your poison.

Condensing a thousand pages of Russian agricultural debates, gender politics, social class dynamics, and the grand ol’ judgements of love, relationship, and family is no easy feat. And when heaping in enough guilt to drive a confessional booth for years to come, Leo Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is an intense, if less than fluid, an account of sparking social mobility and the ‘blessing’ of family. Now, years in adaptation, Lesley Hart’s re-imagining with director Polina Kalinina strips back the pages to hone focus on the relationships and sense of social freedoms and restrictions of women in the story dimensions – rippling into today.

Mercifully for the running time, narrative avenues surrounding the more agricultural and spiritual discourses are fleetingly referenced to promote the relationships through the text – chiefly that of Anna and her struggles with a lack of social freedom and her pursuit of the charismatic Vronsky. But this infatuation turned to desire, blossoming into a relationship is all for not under the eye of Anna’s husband, a staunchly buttoned up Andrei (a redolent, yet somehow fragile performance from Stephen McCole).

Despite Anna’s unfaithfulness, he’s a man who may yet find a place for forgiveness. And even surrounding these three the stench of dissatisfaction reeks through the halls in cousins, friends and other family members as Anna’s brother frequently cheats on his wife Dolly, and their shared companion Levin pines for the younger sister of Dolly, Kitty. And you thought high-school romances were sticky.

Lindsey Campbell is the lynchpin of Hart’s production, though much is made in the effort to instil ensemble importance. It’s a stimulatingly assertive performance, one where the weight of tension, guilt, and fury all gradually drip onto the stage – no true sense of hectic performance is stoked until it is necessary, Campbell stirring together a deadly concoction of temptation and restriction. So by the time she emerges from being a lucid wife and mother to being unshackled by social restraints, the melodramatic imbalance can only have one path left: oblivion.

But despite this, there’s still an undeniable spark of liberation and a soft but clear dimension of feminism to the adaptation. There’s a step to the forefront for the women onstage, as a more central role is pushed for Dolly and Kitty, the pair taking this step and running a mile with strong, energetic performances – a fire-cracking one from Jamie Marie Leary, whilst Tallulah Grieve’s excitable Kitty dips more into a solemnness as the production moves on, the book’s conscience Kostya becoming more of an ineffectual nuisance to Kitty.

Callous, the putrid double standards of the patriarchy through the production may be undiluted and rather obvious, but there’s a cannier sense with Ray Sesay’s Levin Myagkaya, at first glance a sympathetic man who fails to recognise the privilege he has in walking away from his child whom he feels he cannot love – a luxury Kitty does not. It’s a touch more nuanced than the more blatant (but more enjoyable) debauchery and cad-nature attached to Angus Miller’s Stiva, or Robert Akodot’s rollicking, though undoubtedly dubiously alluring Vronsky.

Kalinina’s direction is direct, often immediate in set-up, but does have peculiar blocking in parts, with a panache for a tableau, which leads to a few unsteady moments – though likely just the flutters of early doors. Penetrating, Emma Bailey’s design frequently casts a literal foreshadowing across the rather dark, though still visible staging. It’s both a remarkably stripped-back but well-structured set with a sliding reveal of the extremities of scenes, outdoors among the reeds or snow which offers a more invasive sense of privacy as characters discuss their affairs (often literally) whilst the audience peaks in through the window.

Colour has a place, an opulence in costuming and groaning luxuries on the table but is withdrawn in Mark Henderson’s lighting, save for the crimson streaks of bloodstained snow – the death of a railway worker which sparks off the production and leaves a visceral impression. That’s not to say lighting has a more subdued role, sparing, but impactful, it is utilised in tandem with XANA’s sound design to become overwhelming (deliberately). It’s tremendously atmospheric – the repetitive knuckle cracks, crunching glass and mechanical screeches working to their desired intentions almost a little too well.

Assertive, with control of time, often Hart and Kalinina’s re-imaging steps back from itself – freezing the moment in self-evaluation. In areas it’s fascinating to observe, before the momentum moves the story forward in enchanting explosions of passion, pain, and powerful performances. Deceit and guilt may sit at the table with these characters, but the Royal Lyceum and Bristol Old Vic co-production place enough humanity into the players to truly live – or not at all.

Passion, Pain and Powerful Performances

Anna Karenina runs at the Royal Lyceum Theatre until June 3rd. Tuesday – Saturday at 19.30pm. Wednesday and Saturday matinees at 14.30pm.
Running time – Two hours and thirty minutes, with one interval. Suitable for ages 12+
Tickets from £15.00 (Con. available) and may be obtained here.
Photo Credit – Robbie McFadzean


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