It is one thing to decide to take Leo Tolstoy’s 864-paged* novel, Anna Karenina, and adapt it for the stage. It is another to have the plethora of characters featured in Tolstoy’s work to be played by only four female actors, with the title role shared among them. These great ambitions of Xameleon Theatre are met with equal amounts of excitement among both its Russian- and English-speaking audience, eager to see how the bilingual adaptation plays out.
Performed in Russian with English surtitles playing above, there is immediately an authenticity added to the production. There is no denying that following the production as an English viewer is hard work (on opening night, there were a few occasions where the surtitles went out of sync, which seemed inevitable) yet it is not taxing. Rather, you become fully absorbed into the characters and their relationships with one another. Even in a condensed version like this, Tolstoy’s narrative is ever engrossing.
The Cockpit is a big space to be filled by only four actors, yet the cast do well to use the space. The use of two moving benches – the only prop used in the production – adds dynamic and energy to some scenes, while in others shows off the cast’s creative imagination. Another interesting feature is the masks worn when depicting the male characters. Wanting to highlight the “grotesque” nature of Tolstoy’s male characters, they are a clever way to distinguish the characters, though do not always have the desired effect. With the exception of Nikolay Levin’s sickly colour, the masks do not have that much of an impact – especially for those sitting in the back row of the audience.
In some ways, this reflects Xameleon’s production as a whole. There are many intriguing facets to this performance, all which great potential, however the execution is not always there. Despite there being a number of asides to the audience by Anna and other characters, these are not obvious to those reading the surtitles. A variance in the lighting or freezing the action could easily solve this, and it’s a shame that the English-speaking audience members will miss these moments. There are also occasions when the performers onstage are reserved in the emotions they are portraying. While they may be trying to avoid clichéd outbursts or cries of despair, some dramatics are important when the surtitles are delayed or the audience wish to focus on the acting more than the dialogue. They should not be relying on solely the surtitles when translating these emotions to the audience.
This need for consistency for both audiences is ultimately where the play loses its momentum. When you have a small group of actors sharing a number of roles, it is important that there is some continuity in their portrayals of the same character. This is especially important for the English-speaking members of the audience, who are relying on the colour-coded surtitles and costumes more than anything else to determine who is speaking. Unfortunately, here is where this production lacks consistency. Count Alexei Vronsky goes from being a quiet, reserved suitor to a paranoid, hopeless husband – no longer the stoic figure he was first introduced as. This is not to say that one depiction is better than the other; the issue lies in there being no resemblance between the two Vronsky’s other than the mask the actors share.
That said, one actor who must be commended is Aleksandra Tsarkova. As well as her captivating portrayal of Anna, Tsarkova expertly imitates her fellow actors when assuming their previous roles. The transition between Vlada Lemeshevska and her when playing Alexei Karenin is flawless – and they together offer an excellent characterisation. Tsarkova’s ability to portray a variety of characters who are easily distinguishable is exemplified in her fleeting but hilarious depiction of Dolly and Kitty’s parents, as she moves back and forth between them onstage.
When watching Anna Karenina, it is evident that these women are talented performers who have succeeded in bringing English- and Russian-speaking audiences together to enjoy a universally-loved story of heartbreak and unhappiness. While Xameleon Theatre’s risks do not always pay off, the company admirable ambition will certainly have those present wondering what will be brought to the stage next.
*Length of the Penguin Classic edition