With interpretations of doomed heroines such as Emma Bovary, Maggie Tulliver and, in this case, Anna Karenina (originally presented in 1992), Shared Experience makes a speciality in creating vivid portrayals of troubled nineteenth-century women.
This production by The Piano Removal Company and Snapdragon Productions has grown out of the young ensemble’s finalist show at Birmingham School of Acting and most of them are making their professional stage debut. It isn’t easy to tell exactly where Shared Experience’s distinctive style ends and director Max Webster’s personal touch begins, but the confident and amazingly agile cast nevertheless offers a striking take on what many consider to be the greatest novel ever written.
Tolstoy tells the stories of his two central characters, the sensual Anna and self-flagellating Levin whose stories run in parallel lines, inviting the reader to draw her own conclusions about why these stories are twinned together. In her adaptation, Helen Edmundson has these two characters punctuate the episodes that make up the narrative with their arguments about passion and freedom versus the quest to find meaning in life, as if embodying two halves of a whole (possibly you need the former to find the latter).
Anna, who married young and longs for freedom and adventure, embarks on an affair with the dashing Vronsky, abandons her son and scandalises society. Her destruction doesn’t come so much from disillusionment in love as it does from the irony that this act of rebellion makes her even more constrained. Levin is a man who makes everything as difficult for himself as he can manage, which is perhaps the biggest obstacle he has to overcome.
The typical tropes of period drama as escapism are stripped away: The setting is hard to define. It isn’t imperial Russia (accentuated by the contemporary music that Anna and Vronsky waltz to), but it isn’t exactly the present day either. The costumes, likewise, don’t belong to any particular time period. Anna could do with a more glamorous dress, while Kitty is dressed in virginal white and the men are in timeless clothing (apart from the red-coated Vronsky). In contrast with David Crisp’s minimalist design is a constant whirl of motion. A sequence of births, marriages and deaths and highs and lows play out, beginning with a haunted pas de deux between Anna and a faceless man and montages that include the erotic charge of horse racing and a romantic cascade of paper snowflakes.
Elizabeth Twells (who produces some impressive jetés) is an elegant and fluid Anna and Tristan Pate makes a sensitive Levin. Andy Rush’s constantly posing Vronsky is a surprisingly comic creation, a parody of an alpha male lover full of ultimately empty promises and Maryann O’Brien’s Kitty is full of girlish energy. The entire cast deliver the many physical demands with great aplomb. This energy is a huge asset, but their inexperience does seep through in the difficulty (particularly for Twells and Pate with the meatiest roles) of really bringing such multi-layered characters to life.
It’s a production full of theatrical tricks, if a little self consciously poetic in execution; ultimately a production easier to admire than be moved by.