Review: Anna Karenina, Arcola

“If you only knew what I would give to love you freely”

This production of Anna Karenina at the Arcola Theatre is a revival of one from 1992 by Shared Experience, presented here by The Piano Removal Company, a new company formed out of a recently graduating group from the Birmingham School of Acting, whose final show there was this. Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s novel reworks the story into a conversation between the two central characters of Anna and Levin as they debate freedom versus duty whilst their stories are told in rapidly-played episodes, hers of pursuing an illicit love at the expense of her son and her position in society and his of trying to find meaning in life, even if it means losing the chance to love.

Director Max Webster wears his previous connections to Complicite on his sleeve and the resulting visual aesthetic therefore feels quite familiar: the swift scene changes and multiple role-playing, the exaggerated physicality of much of the movement and moments of striking imagery through simply used props. It works well, creating some elegant scenes of candlelit beauty, spotlit conversations and paper snowfalls as well as working in a wry sense of humour with Vronsky’s omnipresence. But there is just so much of this physical staging with its relentless changes which doesn’t always add value to the production and pad out the running time unnecessarily.

This energy in the storytelling fits in with the attempt to create a timeless feel rather than a strictly observed period drama, something the sound and live music also worked at with varying results. Melodic passages of guitar strumming and piano runs were fine, but a rendition of Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice It’s Alright’ jarred where the acapella singing of a Russian peasant folk song with a whirling foot-stamping dance proved much more stirring and perhaps evidence of some overthinking. And Edmundson’s adaptation could withstand some pruning, it takes a long time to get not very far in the second half.

Performance-wise, there was great enthusiasm from all, Tristan Pate’s Levin standing out and Andy Rush making the most of the difficult role of Vronsky. Elizabeth Twells’ titular Anna managed a great fluidity especially when called on to play the part of a horse, but along with everyone else, the studied concentration of executing the physical language employed here sometimes hampered the depth of character portrayed, the sense of grand emotion that characterises Tolstoy’s work not always quite hitting the mark. But this is something that should come with experience and there’s enough youthful exuberance here to entertain, if not stir the soul.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes (with interval)
Playtext cost: £3.50
Booking until 16th April
Note: a word about the new space of the Arcola, and it is not just nostalgia for the lovely old café and their amazing carrot cake, the foyer is so limited in the number of people it can hold, that the scheduling of the shows in Studio 1 and Studio 2 must be planned so that the intervals do not happen at the same time: the crush last night was almost unbearable.

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