Anna Karenina

May 18 2023 | By More

★★★★☆     Powerful

Royal Lyceum Theatre: Sat 13 May – Sat 3 Jun 2023
Review by Hugh Simpson

The glowing passion of this Anna Karenina comes as much from the staging as from the characters. Written by Lesley Hart after Leo Tolstoy, and directed by Polina Kalinina, the Lyceum’s co-production with Bristol Old Vic is an urgent and thoroughly contemporary affair.

Tolstoy’s novel, despite its sprawling nature, is a favourite for adaptation, and has come to the stage several times. The story of Anna, whose mission to save her philandering brother’s marriage leads to a fateful meeting with a cavalry officer, is the central strand in a story that contains much else besides.

Tallulah Greive (Kitty) and Ray Sesay (Levin) in Anna Karenina. Pic: Robbie McFadzean.j

Unsurprisingly, the book’s discourses on spirituality, spiritualism and agriculture are usually sidelined, and the relationships foregrounded, with the fatal attraction between the married Anna and the dashing Vronsky the main focus.

The famous first line of the novel is – much like the opening of Pride and Prejudice – so renowned for its sweeping certainty that its peculiarity often goes unnoticed. But it is nowhere to be seen here, replaced by flashing lights, grating sound and stylised tableaux.

decidedly earthy

19th-century novels often come to the theatre, and tend to be full of self-referential theatricality and tricksiness. While Hart and Kalinina’s version is occasionally playful, it tends more to the fervent, producing something decidedly earthy (and decidedly sweary).

The undisguised modernity of Holt’s sinuous, raw and versatile adaptation explores the hypocrisy and misogyny of patriarchal double standards in a way that is immediate and highly effective, highlighting how relevant the attitudes on display still are.

Lindsey Campbell (Anna) and Robert Akodoto (Vronsky) in Anna Karenina. Pic: Robbie McFadzean.j

There is also a portrait of self-obsessed, self-justifying masculinity that casts an intriguing light on the running of today’s Russia. There is the occasional jarring 21st century note, but overall the result is an absorbing one.

Lindsey Campbell’s Anna is a compelling performance of a woman transformed and then broken down by love, with the character’s rage and passion beautifully evoked.

Stephen McCole’s evocation of her buttoned-up husband is one of real delicacy, while Angus Miller gives Anna’s brother Stiva a rakish charm.

harshly judged

That Stiva seems ultimately to be judged more harshly here than by Tolstoy is apt in an adaptation that also presents Kostya (a ruminative Ray Sesay) as more ineffectual than in the original, where he is to a degree the book’s conscience. Instead, a more central role is given to their wives Dolly (the charged and crackling Jamie Marie Leary) and Kitty (a suitably excitable Tallulah Greive).

Robert Akodoto’s Vronsky has an intriguing mixture of the louche and the coltish. Huge credit is due, too, to the member of the Lyceum’s young company playing Anna’s son Seryozha.

Stephen McCole, Ray Sesay, Noah Osmani (in bear costume), Angus Miller, Tallulah Greive, Lindsey Campbell, Jamie Marie Leary and Robert Akodotoin in Anna Karenina. Pic: Robbie McFadzean

Doubling of roles is done elegantly, with effective use of Greek chorus-type figures at times, helping to give an insight into the characters’ inner lives. There is a fluency to the direction, with scenes and conversations bleeding into each other. This can lead to the action becoming confused, with two climactic conversations losing some power when being shown as a four-way showdown.

Emma Bailey’s imposing design is used brilliantly to reflect the novel’s use of foreshadowing of later tragedy, with the railway worker’s death at the start of the story represented by a bloodstain that is echoed several times later.

XANA’s sound design – all distorted and insistently repeated music, breaking glass and cracking knuckles – is tremendously atmospheric, and at times deliberately almost overwhelming. Mark Henderson’s lighting has a similar power.

While the unavoidable truncation of the source leads to the odd unsteady moment, this is an absorbing and convincing production.

Running time: Two hours and 35 minutes (including one interval)
Royal Lyceum Theatre, Grindlay St, EH9 3AX
Saturday 13 May – Saturday 3 Jun 2023
Tue – Sat at 7.30 pm; Matinees Wed, Sat at 2.30 pm
Details and tickets: Book here.

Bristol Old Vic, King Street, Bristol, BS1 4ED
Wednesday 7 – Saturday 24 Jun 2023
Mon – Sat at 7.30 pm; Matinees Thurs, Sat at 2.30 pm
Details and tickets: Book here.

Jamie Marie Leary (Dolly), Tallulah Greive (Kitty) and Ray Sesay (Levin) with Robert Akodoto (Vronsky) and Angus Miller (Stiva) in Anna Karenina. Pic: Robbie McFadzean


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