REVIEW – Anna Karenina (The Royal Exchange, Manchester)

 © 2015 Jonathan Keenan  - ANNA KARENINA
© 2015 Jonathan Keenan – ANNA KARENINA
DATE: 24 March 2015

The Royal Exchange Theatre launches its new Spring – Summer 2015 Season with a contemporary adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna Karenina. Writer Jo Clifford, certainly must have had a mammoth task on her hands in stripping back and making cuts to this classic, almost 900 page novel, so that the story and themes could be condensed into a two hour performance inhabiting the intimate space at The Royal Exchange.

Admittedly, I have not read Tolstoy’s novel from cover to cover but I am familiar with the main themes running through it. For this production Clifford puts a particular emphasis on love, infidelity and trust to capture the tour de force of Tolstoy’s original text, but, even with this element as a main focus, this adaptation did feel a little over packed.

Set to the backdrop of nineteenth century Russia and directed by Ellen McDougall, this adaptation of Tolstoy’s monster focuses around three couples and their experiences of love and marriage. Firstly, we encounter Dolly (Claire Brown) talking to Anna (Ony Uhiara) about her unfaithful husband, Oblonsky (Ryan Early) Ironically, Anna convinces Dolly to stay with her husband and work at her marriage. Anna meanwhile married to Karenin (Jonathan Keeble) gives up on being the dutiful wife when she is introduced to Vronsky (Robert Gilbert) and the two embark on a passionate affair culminating in her leaving her husband for her new exciting lover. Running alongside these two stories, is the story of Levin (John Cummins) and Katy (Gillian Saker), their relationship is a slow burner but ultimately, they marry completely for love – embracing the ups and downs of a true marriage.

“Love is just a better way to hurt each other”

The symbolism in Joanna Scotcher’s set is a stark but perfect delight. Train-lines cut right across the bare stage containing a channel of brown soil which runs between them. This design is aptly suggestive of the ground that the characters inhabit and the formation of the railways running relentlessly through them.

“If you cut someone from the soil, you damage him.”

Anna and Vronsky first lock eyes with each other at a fairytale-esque ball. They maintain eye contact through a sea of large, hooped pastel coloured skirts, in contrast Anna is wearing a plain black dress. Magnetically the lovers are drawn to each other, they begin to intertwine and move passionately but it all feels a little awkward. In trying to fit such a monster of a text in to such a short time frame it feels as though we are being raced through the characters lives, which results in us being feeling quite detached from them, their emotions and the predicaments that they have landed in.

“And trains that can crush us as if we are fleas.”

Maybe like the characters are affected by the train lines cutting across the stage, I hoped that this adaptation would reach an emotional peak and leave me feeling as though I’d been on a wild train ride, sadly, I didn’t feel as though this production had any particular destination in mind.

-Kristy Stott

Anna Karenina is running at The Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester until Saturday 2 May 2015.