Anna Karenina review – Lisa Dwan gives uncertain dazzle to Tolstoy

Abbey theatre, Dublin
Marina Carr and Wayne Jordan’s distillation of the 800-page behemoth conjures impressive set-pieces but wobbles on individual characterisations

It is not hard to see why playwright Marina Carr would be drawn to Anna Karenina. Many of her own plays feature suicidal heroines who are social outcasts, and her work grapples with the philosophical themes of love and the possibility of happiness that permeate Tolstoy’s enduring 1877 novel.

In distilling the 800-page work into a drama, Carr and director Wayne Jordan follow other stage and film adaptations by focusing on two main narrative strands: the scandalous extramarital affair between Anna Karenina (Lisa Dwan) and army officer Vronsky (Rory Fleck Byrne), and the courtship and marriage of the idealistic landowner Levin (Paul Mallon) and Anna’s sister-in-law, Kitty (Julie Maguire). Their extended aristocratic families and squadrons of children form a web of affinities, conjured by Jordan in sweeping ensemble scenes, rapidly changing against a lush piano score. A train track deftly moves characters between Moscow, St Petersburg and the country estates run by newly emancipated serfs.

Designer Sarah Bacon has created a vast bare stage, with minimal props, long velvet drapes and a chandelier reflected in the polished parquet floor. This becomes the setting for one of the novel’s set pieces: the grand ball where Anna and Vronsky’s passion is ignited. As Anna, Lisa Dwan looks dazzling in a black backless gown, spinning in Vronsky’s arms, but seems self-conscious and uncertain in later scenes of disintegration. As Anna’s husband, Karenin, Declan Conlon is superb. His moment of forgiveness, when Anna has given birth to Vronsky’s child and both men sit fearfully by her bedside, seems to be dredged from painful depths.

Lisa Dwan and Rory Fleck Byrne in Anna Karenina
Passion ignited … Lisa Dwan and Rory Fleck Byrne in Anna Karenina. Photograph: Ros Kavanagh

While wrapped in alluring imagery – all fur hats and falling snow – this adaptation slips in and out of focus. With the emphasis placed on choreographing the large ensemble cast, individual characterisations are sketchy. Performances tilt into caricature, especially in the second half, and some of the scene structuring seems lopsided. While Vronsky’s suicide attempt and his nerve-wracking steeplechase race are thrown away, groaningly long attention is given to jam-making rivalry on Levin’s country estate. Broad comedy about gender wars is uneasily juxtaposed with Anna’s decline into desperation.

“You’re turning it into a Greek tragedy,” Anna’s sister-in-law tells her, in a nod towards Carr’s numerous reworkings of Greek dramas, from Medea to Phaedra. There are other intertextual jokes, too, with Tolstoy himself expressing his concerns through the character of the agricultural reformer Levin – who happens to be writing a novel on the theme of war and peace.

Anna confides that she used to think of herself as a literary heroine, and is writing a book: it passes the time, and harms no one. Carr seems to be casting an ironic eye over her own preoccupations, with characters mocking themselves even while suffering intensely. What results, in this production, is a bumpy ride towards an upbeat ending, missing the emotional depth required.



Contributor

Helen Meany

The GuardianTramp

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