Review: Anna Karenina, Royal Exchange

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

Ellen McDougall’s debut production for the Royal Exchange is actually a trans-Pennine affair as once Anna Karenina wraps up in Manchester, the show will be heading over the hills (stopping at a Betty’s Tea Room en route as must surely be done) to the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds, along with Chris Urch’s The Rolling Stone with which it plays in rep. It is always pleasing to see this kind of regional collaboration actually coming to fruition as it does provide reassurances that the arts are finding the best ways to work through these financially straitened times.

It helps of course when the work is of this quality. Jo Clifford’s adaptation of Tolstoy’s famed novel is very much unafraid to cut and reconfigure the story into something overtly theatrical as characters break out of the narrative to introduce themselves and provide short cuts through the author’s tangled web of nineteenth century Russian aristocracy. Clifford, and McDougall, also pull in the focus so that the counterpoint of Anna’s fast-burning passion with the dashing Vronsky and Levin’s hard-fought love for Katy becomes the beating heart of the matter.

Anna’s scandalising decision to leave the drudgery of her marriage makes perfect sense in this trio of performances. Jonathan Keeble’s arrogant Karenin resorting to manhandling his wife giving a strong sense of why she was so unhappy, whilst equally the undeniable charms of Robert Gilbert’s flighty Vronsky provide a sterling, snake-hipped alternative. And from her first scene, Ony Uhiara shows us the barely constrained nervous energy that governs Anna’s very nature – the chemistry of their first meeting electric with sexuality, its subsequent souring never in doubt. 

The contrast with John Cummins’ Levin and Gillian Saker’s Katy could not be more marked – away from society’s hypocritical gaze (Ryan Early’s comic philanderings as Oblonsky laughed off in a way Anna’s infidelity could scarce dream of) their own struggles are rooted in a slow-burning love of an entirely different order as Levin’s dedication to the rural lifestyle means he’s as interested in husbandry as being a husband. Joanna Scotcher’s symbolic design reinforces this sense of the importance of the earth of Mother Russia and also points to the future with its encroaching train tracks. 

Streamlined and savvy, this Anna Karenina remains a pleasingly intense affair –a world away from Joe Wright’s underrated film but a subtler, more contemporary beast that proves highly effective. Worth catching. 

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 2nd May, then at West Yorkshire Playhouse 9th May-13th June

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