Staging Anna Karenina is a tricky business. For a start, you have to chisel down one thousand pages and repackage it into a two-hour spectacle, no mean feat for a text that needs no further advertisement than that of being ‘the greatest book ever written.’ Then, for a novel where the exact English translation for the style of a character’s shoes has provoked fierce debate, the required material has to be carved out with precision and bitter economy. I have one perennial issue with Anna Karenina adaptations, and it is this: they are too literary. I speak here as a devout Tolstoyan, yet it is precisely this that is the issue. Too often, filmmakers and playwrights see Anna Karenina as some sort of hallowed jewel, unalterable in its majesty. But Maria Shepard’s new production is fearless and spirited; this is not a faint mimetic flattery, but a piece that hits you with the power and intensity of a train at full speed.
The two elements that really make this production are a talented cast and a sensitive, nuanced score. This is hauntingly merged in the last of the scenes I was treated to, Song for Seryozha, in which a tenderly wistful melody yearns towards the child, a piece poignantly executed by Anna (Amelia Gabriel), all the more touching for its intimate showcase of a lone voice amid the clamour of wider society in the scenes before it. The relationship between Anna and Karenin (Henry Jacobs) surprised me for its sensitivity- the tension between them strains at the edges of score and dialogue- a piquant counterpoint to the unrestrained passion between Anna and Vronsky. Anna and Karenin’s relationship is more deftly developed here than in any other production I’ve yet seen, a neat bit of narrative texturing that makes for a more full-blooded exploration of Anna’s psyche.
The two elements that really make this production are a talented cast and a sensitive, nuanced score.
Throughout my discussion with Maria Shepard and co-writers and co-directors Suzy Cripps and James Tibbles, two ideas crop up relentlessly: psychological realism and stylisation. I am promised an intriguing, but not overpowering spectacle; an opulent setting for the Moscow/St Petersburg scenes and a charming Russian countryside for Levin. Merely within the three scenes I saw, the cast teased their potential both for swelling and powerful group ensembles with intricate operatic elements and impressive vocal sequences which I am told will be interspersed with a six minute ball dance scene. Mirroring the music, the narrative rolls fluidly and expansively. The society scenes are a delight; the crowd at the edges of the racecourse in the horse-racing scene build up an expectant energy through a melange of chatter. Rather than presenting this 19th century Russian world as if it were a historical curio examined through a magnifying glass, we receive a swirling, exciting panorama of activity, in which each individual’s daily life is a form of theatre in itself.
I am charmed by the suppleness of the piece. In my mind, Anna Karenina, if not a novel has always been a play or an opera. But this is a bias that has been changed by this musical. Maria’s vision follows through; her desire to use the flexibility of the musical form means that Anna Karenina is so much more than the ‘terrible tale of a woman’s tragedy’ trailer voiceovers are so fond of reminding us of. For this production allows us to experience the whole melee of human emotions that Anna Karenina is all about. For those who have never seen or read it before, this production has bottled up the essence of the novel into a two-hour tour de force. For those who have, this is a production that, through its energy and verve, has all the power and wonder of new experience.
Anna Karenina is on in the O’Reilly Theatre from the 14th to the 18th of February.