The BBC recently condensed Tolstoy’s epic War and Peace into six one-hour long episodes. The ever-ambitious Arrows and Traps Theatre Company have followed suit and tackled Anna Karenina, concentrating it powerfully into two hours and forty-five minutes. Helen Edmundson’s adaptation is captivating and channeled wonderfully through Ross McGregor’s imaginative directing. This is an exhilarating production- the best piece of theatre I can recall watching at the intimate Brockley Jack Studio Theatre.
Anna Karenina is the story of a married woman, burdened by the shackles of marriage and the morals of Russian high society. She enters into a scandalous affair with the dashing young officer, Count Vronsky. It is nigh on impossible to synopsise the entire plot, but Anna is driven to the brink of despair through Tolstoy’s masterful exploration of love, freedom and our reasons for living. This adaptation largely takes the form of an ongoing dialogue between Anna and Levin, the wholly honest and hard-working landowner. The two characters meet only once in the play, but scenes flicker between the two and their contrasting lifestyles are upheld against one another. It is this narrative framework which is most interesting about Edmonson’s adaptation. Scenes flicker elliptically between the two- although their lifestyles are polarized, we grow to realise that they are both technically searching for the same thing.
The cast are superb. Ellie Jacob’s portrayal of Anna sifts between tragic, lustrous and emphatically chaotic. The scenes between Anna and her rigid, cuckolded husband Alexis, (Adam Elliott) are tense and cruel. Elliott captures Alexis’ unwavering sterility so well. Spencer Lee’s comical and bumbling portrayal of Anna’s hedonistic brother, Stiva offers some comic relief which functions as a great contrast.
Brockley’s Jack Studio Theatre is a small and dark space. Director Ross McGregor puts the surroundings to such good use. The drams unfolds amidst the darkness and claustrophobia of the location which suits the play very well. McGregor’s production is consistently morbid- a cloaked figure representing death roams the stage freely, clutching his hands wirily around the characters. Rarely do we see theatre which offers up such discomfort- it really is quite scary.
This is an intense and enthralling production, an excellent adaptation of Tolstoy’s novel. Great stuff.