I can understand why someone might try to adapt Anna Karenina for the stage, but I sure as hell wouldn’t want to do it. You’ve got to cut a lot or the play would be 27 hours long. Sadly, the cuts they’ve made in this Royal Exchange/West Yorkshire Playhouse production are mortal wounds. Gone is the deep texture and grand scale that make Tolstoy’s book one of the greatest ever written – the complex motivations and insights into characters’ inner lives, the engrossing philosophical asides, the whole beautiful maddening mess of human society. We’re left instead with the predictable tale of a bored society wife, an ambitious young soldier and a series of really bad decisions.
The first scene, in which Anna manages to make peace between her philandering brother Stiva and his long-suffering wife, Dolly, is absolutely crucial. It establishes Anna as a kind and wise woman, someone of character – which makes the tragedy of her downfall really hit home. But Ony Uhiara’s Anna seemed only fit for making a scene, all shrill hysterics and jerky, nervous energy. I just didn’t buy her reassuring the excellent Dolly about anything.
It was the same throughout the whole play: I couldn’t get past the disservice Jo Clifford’s adaptation does its title character. Anna’s agonizing over the decision to abandon her young son Seriozha for her lover is a major plot point, probably one of the main reasons she decides to off herself, and yet here her son is barely mentioned. In the book, she also becomes pregnant with Vronsky’s child early in their affair, which has bearing on how and when she decides to leave her husband and on the lovers’ ensuing relationship – here it simply doesn’t happen. We aren’t encouraged to understand Anna or identify with her, so we can only pity her. The audience is left on the outside, with little to do for the next couple of hours but admire the (admittedly superb) coats the cast are wearing.
John Cummins’ bumbling Levin, who provided most of the evening’s few laughs, stood out in the small ensemble, directed by Ellen McDougall. While the design gets points for imagination – metal rails, rolling cars and plastic panels are used in inventive, occasionally gimmicky ways – it just didn’t work for me. And having characters linger onstage in the background when their scenes are over might be an attempt to disrupt the theatrical space, but it just confused things. It was a worthy endeavour with some memorable moments, but for me, the only level on which this succeeded is as a reminder of how bad it sucked to be a woman in Tolstoy’s Russia. That, at least, is something we can all agree on.
Anna Karenina is on at The Royal Exchange through 2 May, and transfers to West Yorkshire Playhouse 9 May- 13 June. Tickets from £10.