Anna Karenina review: A riveting 3½ hours of Tolstoy
A fresh adaptation by Marina Carr offers an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle and is all the better for it
Lisa Dwan: physically lithe and emotionally supple as the doomed, unhappy heroine
Abbey Theatre, Dublin
“All happy families are the same. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” What to do with those opening lines of Anna Karenina, so often quoted they have become stripped of meaning? If you are Marina Carr, have a group of children sing-song them like a silly nursery rhyme. But Carr takes Tolstoy’s declaration very seriously in this new version of the novel for the stage, which insists upon the epic scope of Tolstoy’s vision, casting the eponymous (anti-)heroine as just another bit player in a far more vital drama: the predicament of life and love and birth and death; the essential markers of human life that touch the lowliest serf as well as the loveliest princess.
In Wayne Jordan’s typically theatrical staging, the players move like tiny figures across the the vast polished parquet floor of Sarah Bacon’s sparse design, which uses layers of rich red velvet curtains to mark key transitions, including the passing of trains. Tables and chairs are used to demarcate domestic spaces, while an upright piano punctuates or punctures moments of emotional intensity with David Coonan’s score.
Carr demonstrates a great talent for structure and juxtaposition as she shapes Tolstoy’s unwieldy text into a coherent stage narrative that, at 3½ hours of stage time, is never boring. She lays her own mark upon the material, too, bringing a mordant wit to the characters’ bleak situations, in particular the hopeless case of the women, who deal with the necessary moral compromises of their various situations with admirable pragmatism.
Although the title ascribes the central drama to Anna, Carr offers an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle. Lisa Dwan is physically lithe and emotionally supple as the doomed, unhappy heroine, playing opposite Rory Fleck Byrne’s upright and curiously restrained Vronsky. However, the irrational passion of their relationship pales in comparison to the complexity of the other characters’ emotional lives: how the permanently pregnant Dolly (Ruth McGill) can settle for the philandering Stiva (Killian Burke); how sweet, innocent Kitty (Julie Maguire) can put her faith in Paul Mallon’s Levin, when she witnesses the realities of betrayal around her. These supposedly secondary characters steal the show.
It is fitting, then, that it is Kitty and Levin, embracing the terrifying wonder of a new child, who dominate the final tableau. As the curtains rise to reveal the back wall graffitied with Anna’s threat of vengeance, Carr makes sure we know that it is the triumph of ordinary life that is history’s greatest teacher.
Until January 28th