Anna Karenina review – Tolstoy meets Baz Luhrmann in a magnificent spectacle

Crucible, Sheffield
With hula hoops and a giant cake, this show bashes the narrative with disco glitz but keeps tragedy at its centre

That the props department had to source a giant birthday cake, a pink flamingo inflatable swimming ring and several luminous green hula hoops for this production should tell you everything you need to know about the reverence in which the source material is held.

Director Anthony Lau, using a celebrated 1992 adaptation by Helen Edmundson, shows almost no respect for the milieu of Tolstoy’s epic masterpiece, and in thumbing his nose at the weighty reputation of the Russian’s magnum opus activates the story to create a production that is thrilling and utterly compelling.

Sarah Seggari (Princess Betsy) in Anna Karenina.
Party princess … Sarah Seggari (Princess Betsy) in Anna Karenina at the Crucible, Sheffield. Photograph: Marc Brenner

It is all built around an absorbing performance from Adelle Leoncé as the eponymous heroine. She goes through the wringer over the course of the three-hour piece, leaving everything on the stage.

Around her, Lau makes some seriously bold choices. The costumes and staging are Baz Luhrmann-esque; indeed one scene that descends from Russian aristocratic ball to all-out disco could slip into any of the films in the Australian director’s red curtain trilogy.

Edmundson’s smartly economical storytelling has Anna and Konstantin Levin, played here by the highly watchable Dougie McMeekin, asking each other “‘where are you now?”. Standing on an empty stage Anna can tell him “I’m on a train heading for Moscow” or “I’m in an Italian town in an old, shabby palazzo” and so she is and with her we go.

Solomon Israel as Stiva.
Bold … Solomon Israel as Stiva. Photograph: Marc Brenner

Lau takes Edmundson’s economy and adds buckets full of irreverence. A day at the races becomes seriously racy as Anna gives into her animal urges with lover Count Vrosnky in a highly erotic seduction scene. A visit to Princess Betsy and one of her infamous parties is a hilariously postmodern, shot-drinking, bacchanalian affair. Leoncé’s Anna is a woman apart in several ways, the acting around her all nods and winks and slightly outside the action while she is entirely immersed in it. The angels of death who occasionally stalk the stage, looking like steampunk slaughtermen, lend an air of menace to a production that sees design and direction in perfect symbiosis. This is a spectacle in every sense.

The purists? Let them eat giant birthday cake.


Nick Ahad

The GuardianTramp

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