Anna Karenina, Arcola Theatre, Dalston, London, March 2011

Those who have read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina will remember her falling under the train. They may also remember her lover Vronsky, and the upper class world that rejects her, at least until she’s divorced. Karenin, her husband and a statesman many years older than her, refuses a divorce despite the fact that she has left home. Her son has been told she’s dead, and Anna’s story of slow destruction is contrasted with that of her brother’s old friend Levin. He sowed his wild oats many years ago and now wishes for the tranquillity of life in the country, managing his estates and marrying Kitty, younger sister to Anna’s sister-in-law Dolly. Kitty once loved Vronsky, but she got over it . . . eventually. Recovery and destruction are twin themes of the story, and this play brings both to a sudden conclusion at the end.

Tristan Pate as Levin, Elizabeth Twells as Anna, all photos by Farrows Creative

At 800 pages, Tolstoy’s novel — one of the greatest ever written — is a challenge to put on stage, but this adaptation by Helen Edmundson covers the main points of the story rather well, and the staging by The Piano Removal Company and Snapdragon Productions is remarkable. It gets off to a hugely physical start as Anna is roused from sleep by a faceless man. This and other elemental forces of nature, their heads swathed in black cloth, reappear throughout the performance. The black-headed characters are silent, but the actors in costume create disturbing noises from time to time, illustrating the internal turmoil of those around them . . . and then there’s the movement and dance.

Elizabeth Twells was a luminous Anna, and she must have had serious dance training or she could not have maintained her postures through the lifts, nor indeed have done a sequence of coupé jetés at one point. In fact the movement from the whole cast was wonderfully well synchronised, and well reflected the disturbed feelings of the characters, particularly Anna. By contrast, Tristan Pate was a solid, well-grounded Levin, entirely convincing in his desire for normality, and his flirting with suicide, which he knows to be stupid. He and Anna communicate across the stage, despite being in separate worlds, helping to create dramatic tension.

Andy Rush, Elizabeth Twells and Adam Alexander as Vronsky, Anna and Karenin

The performance took place in the theatre’s Studio 1, a large cavernous space in what must have once been a cellar. The actors themselves moved the simple props and created new scenes, one after another, playing multiple small parts, all helped by simple but very effective lighting by Penny Gaize. Max Webster’s direction kept the action moving seamlessly from one scene to another, and aside from the main protagonists, Anna and Levin, I particularly liked Sophie Walker as Dolly, and Maryann O’Brien as Kitty.

In the end, the train, created by a few actors and two lamps, was superbly dramatic, and its juxtaposition with the birth of Kitty’s baby formed a glorious ending. Death and new birth — a reminder that the point of life is life itself.

Performances continue until April 16 — for more details click here.

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