Anna Karenina at the Crucible Theatre – review

Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of the Leo Tolstoy classic continues its run through to 26 February

Adelle Leonce (as Anna)
Adelle Leoncé (as Anna)
© Marc Brenner

Leo Tolstoy's novel, Anna Karenina, runs to over 800 pages depending on the edition and features more than a dozen major characters. It's often seen as centring on the turbulent love affair between Anna Karenina and Count Vronsky, but it's much more complex than that. It certainly poses problems for a stage adaptation of less than Wagnerian duration and with a cast of eight actors.

Helen Edmundson's version, originally prepared for Shared Experience, cleverly focuses on the fact that the stories of Anna and Konstantin Levin, a landowner of substance, involve the same cast of characters without Anna and Levin actually coming in contact. To simplify, Anna is respectably married to Karenin, her licentious brother Stiva is in constant trouble with his philandering, Anna is called upon to moderate between him and his wife Dolly. Stiva's oldest chum is Levin who is in love with Dolly's sister Kitty. She turns down his proposal because she is infatuated with Count Vronsky who then deserts her for Anna.

So Edmundson decided on double narrators, Anna and Levin telling their stories to each other, interrogating each other's motives, expressing horror or sympathy, above all asking the key question in a bare-stage production, "Where are you now?".

And where they are, in Anthony Lau's production, is certainly not 19th century Russia. Some of the bizarre costumes (designer Georgia Lowe) irritate at first, but gradually we are drawn into a nightmarish world of which the glitter and trumpery is only a part. The set is completely bare throughout, with a raised walkway circling the acting area. Jack Knowles' lighting is crucial, a circle of light over the stage, slits and slashes of light punctuating the drama, together with the restless sound world and century-hopping music of Alexandra Faye Braithwaite. Action is symbolic or impressionistic as often as not, with sudden explosions of emotion, though, in truth, that would fit 19th century Russia equally well.

Such an extreme approach, with bizarre episodes simultaneously comic and menacing, needs something to anchor it – and the Sheffield production gets it in outstanding performances from the two narrators/protagonists. Adelle Leoncé's Anna, tortured, questioning, is at the same time poised and even matter-of-fact, radiating a sense of authority that unravels dramatically. Cutting 850 pages to 2 ½ hours stage time removes a character's hinterland. Leoncé manages to hint at it, to sketch it in, as does Douggie McMeekin who creates a wonderfully Chekhovian Levin, gauche, earnest, passionate in caring for the estate workers, idealistic and almost irresistibly drawn to the wrong move in affairs of the heart.

Count Vronsky becomes something of a cypher among more complex characters, but Chris Jenks suggests the void beneath the charm. Nick Fletcher's Karenin is as buttoned up and conventional as you could wish for, Solomon Israel is the personification of hedonism as Stiva, Isis Davis and Tara Tijana as Dolly and Kitty, respectively, move from screaming fury to sensitive understanding, and Sarah Seggari goes over the top as Princess Betsy as well as contributing a raft of minor characters, as do most of the cast. The commitment and intensity never wavers.

In truth, this is not an Anna Karenina that will appeal to all – one suspects that Tolstoy might have had his doubts – but, taken on its own terms, it's a compelling evening in the theatre.