“What happens if you can’t stop?”
Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Anna Karenina really is a clever thing. Taking the huge scale of Tolstoy’s Russian epic novel and translating it into something genuinely theatrical, and new, is no mean feat. Last seen in London at the Arcola (where I think I underestimated it a tad), Arrow & Traps Theatre Company have brought it to the intimacy of Brockley Jack’s black box studio and it’s an impressively mounted production.
Edmundson’s major innovation is to reframe the story as an existential conversation between its two main characters Anna and Levin, whose lives are inextricably interlinked through their family connections (she’s his sister-in-law’s sister-in-law, I think) but actually only ever intersect once. Thus they relate tales of their experiences while debating faith and freedom, responsibility and love, what it means to really live.
And it is really, properly, done well here, Ross McGregor’s production reaching a fluidity and beauty that is rare for the fringe, indeed for many a larger theatre too. Developed out of bare-bones rehearsal and experimentation, the work shimmers with playful invention that strikes at the heart of the story being told. The spectre of death haunting so many scenes, clever doubling such as Cornelia Baumann playing both wife and mistress to Stiva (Anna’s feckless brother), the atmospheric swoops of Gareth Kearns’ sound design, all elements harmonise perfectly to elevate the whole.
McGregor doesn’t skimp on ambition either, with his company of 8 and aided by movement director Will Pinchin and designer Remy Moynes, set pieces range from harvest dances to lavish society balls, snowstorms to busy St Petersburg streets, which provide the ideal settings for Anna and Levin’s contrasting fortunes. David Paisley’s painstakingly earnest Levin searching for an ever elusive meaning to his life, even as he finds a tenderly beautiful (eventual) love match in Pippa Caddick’s Kitty.
And Ellie Jacob’s Anna is perfectly pitched. Caught between the starched aridity of her husband Karenin (strong work from Adam Elliott) and the welcome attentions of the seductive young buck Vronsky (an excellent Will Mytum), there’s a real sense of the conflict within her, between being the wife and mother society demands of her and the woman that she longs to be. The force of the sexual energy between Anna and Vronsky here captures everything about why people risk so much in affairs but equally, there’s a real sense too of what happens when the initial allure fades, when reality kicks in hard.
Sensual and striking, this is a cracking production of Anna Karenina and a beautiful piece of theatre. I really wish I’d seen some of Arrows & Traps’ earlier Shakespeare work but they’re a company firmly on my radar now.