Lesley Hart and Polina Kalinina join forces to combine Scottish writing and Russian direction to create an ambitious re-telling of Leo Tolstoy’s widely regarded masterpiece, Anna Karenina. Exploring the universal themes of misogynistic societal trappings against love that defies all odds, Hart and Kalinina lay bare the hypocrisy of 19th century gender stereotypes which relate to our 21st century ideals.
Lindsey Campbell gives a powerful performance as the title character. Slowly metamorphosing from the unassuming politician’s wife, she is driven mad by her sudden exhilarating freedom, granted in the form of an affair, and suffocated by the same social circle she once valued above all else. Status is currency in this world. For women, betrayals make them a criminal, but for men they are a daily dalliance.
The first act sets up the relationships between the characters, with sound designer Xana’s dramatic and industrial soundscape providing a chilling and foreboding atmosphere despite the comedic elements. This atmosphere is heightened by stage and costume designer Emma Bailey’s omnipresent metallic-gold spiky spiral, which slowly twists its way down the centre of the stage as the actions of each player – who are dressed in suitably beautiful period pieces – set fate in motion.
The second act sets these stylised features aside, but the wait for their return keeps you on edge throughout. The rear wall slides away during pivotal moments to reveal a glass window into cinematic spaces, such as snowy platforms and golden fields of wheat, which stand out against the minimalist set design. This set piece is especially effective when the death of a railway worker is conveyed through a bright red stain against white snow; ‘a dark omen’ set to the sound of trains that haunts Anna for the rest of her life.
Vicki Manderson’s sharp choreography keeps the flow of the scenes feeling naturalistic, from extravagant balls to stylised sex scenes. Intimacy director, Adelaide Waldrop, supports this natural design, which is done incredibly well given sex is a key instigator of the story. Through layering scenes within scenes, characters are granted the space to defend their motivations within the narrative.
However, the juxtaposition of the comedic language against the dark atmosphere gives the impression of two plays in one. Angus Miller plays a fantastic Stiva who provides comedic relief that works well, yet when it is applied to other characters doesn’t feel part of the same play. Similarly, having Tallulah Greive (Kitty) play Vronsky’s prize horse Frou Frou completely removes the audience from the emotion portrayed during an intense scene. Perhaps this decision is to give another woman a voice, but it is a move that feels satirical in an otherwise well-constructed retelling.
Surprisingly, Stephen McCole’s portrayal of Karenin as a stoic and sensible figure, which contrasts against the emotional yet devoted Vronsky played by Robert Akodoto, evokes feelings of sympathy. Their interactions serve to show how both bend over backwards to try to make their situation work while somehow maintaining their pride. Although men will always fare much better than women, they also stand to lose their future potential. The woman of this retelling are at the heart, but by the end of the story one thing is clear: we are all losers in a man’s world.