She stoops to conquer
“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, is a classic text. “Anna Karenina” in a new version by Marina Carr, maybe not so much. Indeed, it would be easy to make a case for the Abbey Theatre’s production of Carr’s “Anna Karenina” to be considered a darkly comic pantomime. Or a soap opera, a melodrama or even a situation comedy. Indeed, director Wayne Jordan’s brave and bold approach delivers a fresh production that is something of a heady mix of all the above. Yet if Carr’s Anna seems to lower her standards, what's offered is a hugely accessible and deeply entertaining take on Tolstoy’s classic, even if it better serves those already in the know. While a lot gets lost in translation, and its approach to gender borders on the curious at times, its tale of an independent woman trapped by men, convention and the hatred of women, delivers a laugh out loud, deeply entertaining production.
Whilst Tolstoy’s multi layered text explores a multitude of themes, Carr focuses, for the most part, on its two central love stories and mines them, and their characters, for their rich comic possibilities. As the soppy Levin pursues the youthful Kitty, the swaggering Vronsky appears as his rival. Yet Vronsky only has eyes for the paragon of fidelity, Anna. Time progresses, hearts are wooed, and eventually Anna spurns her husband, Karein, to be with her lover, Vronsky, who has already spurned Kitty for Anna, with Kitty having already spurned Levin in the hope of capturing Vronsky in the first place. Yet seduction gives way to the morning after consequences, with the picture not always so pretty when the love dust settles. In an effort to reclaim what was lost and to find their way to home and family, some can make amends. Others though, are doomed to find their way to the darkest of places.
Theatrically, under Wayne Jordan’s direction, “Anna Karenina” deals in an abundance of eclectic references, including many musical in nature. Live pianists Cathal Synnott and Andrew Synnott channel everything from Victorian Music Halls to silent movies, twisted versions of Russian classical music to Bellini’s “Casta Diva.” Music meets visuals in choreographer, Liz Roche, who does an excellent job with the ballroom scene where the lovers dance to their inevitable conclusion. Visually, set design by Sarah Bacon, built around large, sweeping stage curtains which Jordan plays with excellently, gives a wonderful sense of stage and theatre. With its snowstorms, chandeliers and sliding rails, and more set changes than you care to count, its visual richness is well realised, heavily dependent on an excellent lighting design by Sinéad Wallace, which is executed impeccably throughout.
In this new version, gender passes through some strange territory. Here, Carr’s slighted female characters deal less in "hell hath no fury"and more in multiple versions of “Can't Help Loving That Man of Mine." Indeed, particularly post intermission, the whole has the feel of a 1970’s soap opera or situation comedy, where husbands, wives and marital strife are all there to be made fun of. Indeed, with its gormless men and domineering women, it all begins to feel like an episode of “Last of the Summer Wine” at times. All of which is mildly curious, good for an obvious giggle and certainly accessible to a wider audience. As are its obvious gender debates over dinner. Yet at times its positioning of gender in this way risks coming across as smug self-satisfaction, as if trying to say “look how clever we are, how far we’ve come,” as we all laugh at the obvious gender jokes.
All of which impacts on performances, with some roles seeming to offer caricatures and stereotypes and, in some cases, poorly fleshed out characters. The most notable of which is Vronsky, whose sole function appears to be nothing other than as a catalyst and venting board for Anna. A skimpy role compared to the novel, which Rory Fleck Byrne does the best he can with. Yet, even with these restrictions, Jordan’s cast turn in wonderfully engaging performances, with many of the supporting roles being particularly strong. Declan Conlon as the officious Karenin is always compelling, as are Julie Maguire as the child bride Kitty, Ruth McGill as baby making Dolly and Barbara Brennan as the worldly wise Countess Vronskaya. Paul Mallon as Levin, and Killian Burke as Stiva, two equally pathetic comrades in arms, are always engaging. Derbhile Crotty as the fiercely domineering Princess Sherbatsk, and Nick Dunning as her caring, if sometimes bewildered husband, are a joy throughout. As is Lisa Dwan whose portrayal of Anna provides the gravitational centre around which this unhinged universe revolves. Throughout, Dwan is magnificent, bringing depth and dimension to what could otherwise have been quite a problematic role.
At over three hours in length with one intermission, “Anna Karenina” requires a little stamina. In truth, it could have done with some pruning. Nicolai’s story being a case in point, as it really doesn’t add much to proceedings. Yet even with that much time on its hands, “Anna Karenina” still hurries itself in places, jumping to and from key points a little too quickly and unconvincingly at times. One point it doesn’t jump from however, is its unashamed use of Irish accents and dialects, making evident that this is very much an Irish version of the Russian classic. And despite some drawbacks, it works. And works incredibly well. If, in the end, insight and depth are sacrificed for access and entertainment at times, sure where’s the harm in that. Indeed, “Anna Karenina” is at its playful best when it plays for laughs. A serious production that doesn’t take itself too seriously, “Anna Karenina” offers a tremendous night of theatre built around a stunning central performance.
“Anna Karenina” by Leo Tolstoy, in a new version by Marina Carr, runs at The Abbey Theatre until January 28th
For more information, visit The Abbey Theatre