The arrival of a student production of Anna Karenina at the Arcola reawakens the concerns about the strength of artistic director Mehmet Ergen’s programming that surfaced towards the end of his tenure along Kingsland High Road in the old carpet factory.
For while Max Webster’s production for the Piano Removal Company – newly formed from recent graduates of the Birmingham School of Acting – has a callow, headlong enthusiasm about it, the means of expression are a litany of “physical theatre” tropes that would make the sternest, most serious of experimentalists blush with embarrassment.
Helen Edmundson’s skimpy adaptation – first made for Shared Experience nearly twenty years ago – is no great help. It pits Anna (Elizabeth Twells) and Levin (Tristan Pate) against each other in a sort of competitive narrative with dotted highlights.
To this, Webster – who has credits with Lecoq, Odin Teatret and Simon McBurney – adds a dream-like figure of Death, a bundle of bad modern dance moves and lifts, and the provocative musical underpinning of Peter Sarstedt’s “Where Do You Go To My Lovely” in the great ball scene and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” as Anna disintegrates emotionally and Vronsky (Andy Rush) hangs out brutally with the lads.
At the races, Anna becomes Vronsky’s horse and is mounted from behind, which suggests someone’s been watching too many bad revivals of Lorca. I quite liked the peasants in Levin’s field scything in unison like refugees from Martin Guerre, but this sets off a whole series of trite juxtapositions between dreams of death and childbirth.
Not to mention paper snow storms. And if I see one more of those in the theatre I’ll cancel my holiday in Siberia. Other old friends include hand-held lamps, the ritual lighting of tea candles, Slavic chanting and random use of microphones. Anna suffers the final indignity: she jumps on the track and is mown down by an upturned coffee table.
Yesterday’s grown-up European and American avant-garde groups were first of all rooted in good acting and a kind of authentic spiritualism. The trouble with most British “innovative” work today is that it’s not – whether it’s Shunt, Punchdrunk, Katie Mitchell or even, sometimes, Complicité. Acquiring the clichés is never enough.