Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina has previously provided the basis for a short-lived 1992 Broadway musical that was gloriously spoofed in the satirical revue Forbidden Broadway – “Do you hear that train come round the bend/it means the tale of Anna is about to end/As I throw myself to my new address/beneath the Ashkebad, Tblisi and Kiev Express” (sung to the tune of the old standard, ‘On the Atcheson, Topeka and the Sante Fe’).
Now Tolstoy’s novel also provides a dramatic motor, of sorts, for a new play, Anna in the Tropics that’s set in a Cuban family-run cigar factory in Tampa, Florida, in 1929. Here, a newly-arrived lector – a man hired to sit amongst the factory workers and read to them – chooses to read Anna Karenina, a winter warmer of a book to pass the languid summer days by. And soon enough, its tale of love and adulterous liaisons strikes powerful resonances in their own lives.
Nilo Cruz’s play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for drama last year, is a slow-burner, to be sure, like the cigars that are so carefully being hand-crafted in the factory. But, unlike them, it fails to ignite - at least on the evidence of this production – with any discernible flavour, beyond the smell of the burning of a cigar itself.
By most accounts, last year’s Broadway production also failed to find the dramatic heat in the situation, but at least it was cast authentically with real Latin-American actors. Here at Hampstead, there’s a further distortion and distancing from the material as we watch an English cast (including Diana Quick, Joseph Mydell, Rachael Stirling and Lorraine Burroughs as the central family) faking their Latin passions with phoney accents.
After the debacle of Murderous Instincts, which summoned a Puerto Rican family to the Savoy with hardly a genuine Latino actor in sight, I found it slightly disturbing, not to say ultimately alienating, to find myself trying to buy into the colour-blind casting of this family with actors who were all sorts of colours but none of them Latin. You wouldn’t think of casting an August Wilson play in the same way, so why – even though genuine Latin actors may be in short supply – can it be justified here?
And with a play that’s so culturally specific, it simply causes confusion to apply such odd cross colour casting here. Indhu Rubasingham’s production fails to resolve those difficulties, or provide the kind of poetic texture or tension that might allow the play to be taken on a less realistic level that might have otherwise justified it.
- Mark Shenton