I saw the Royal Exchange’s current production of Anna Kerenina on Saturday afternoon. A rather late decision, and not one regretted; it was so well performed and directed. What I saw was a rather unconventional presentation of Tolstoy’s famous novel, but all the risks pay off, whether it be the multi-cultural cast, the minimalist staging or the wise decision to expunge pages upon pages of farming practice. I have the latter on very good authority, as I’ve not actually read the book or seen any of the numerous film adaptations (with Clarence Brown’s 1935 offering with Greta Garbo being arguably the most famous, alongside the recent Kiera Knightley vehicle).
Judging by the size of the novel, abridging Tolstoy’s story into a two hour theatre production must have been a daunting task, and Jo Clifford’s minimalist presentation manages to captivate from start to finish, without losing what I expect are the main themes of Tolstoy’s original narrative. One main point of praise is that it has encouraged me to read it at the soonest opportunity.
The production focuses on the parallel relationships of Anna and her illicit lover Count Vronsky, and the idealistic farmer Levin, and his childhood friend Katy, who spurned him years before. There is tragedy and there is the bitter hurt of love gone wrong, all played out against the social backdrop of 19th century Russia. The sparse set, dominated by the polar imagery of technology and nature (the train and the soil), allows space for some captivating performance and clever choreography.
While Ony Uhiara and Robert Gilbert provide central gravitas as Anna and Vronsky, it was in Gillian Saker’s Katy and John Cumin’s Levin that I found the story resonating more successfully for me, with a tender realism that made me wish their union well. With moments of light heartedness amongst the pathos and a lot of story in a short time, this appeared to be a distilled vision of Tolstoy, but while the man himself may have had reservations, it engaged me and has since turned my eye towards the bookshelf.
Anna Karenina is on at the Royal Exchange, Manchester, until 2nd May 2015.