Anna Karenina @ The Jack Studio Theatre

There is a list buzzing about on the internet somewhere of the ten books people claim to have read but actually haven’t – Orwell makes an appearance on it, as does Charles Dickens, but there’s only one writer who receives the hollow victory of having two novels in the top ten. Tolstoy‘s War and Peace and Anna Karenina are the third and forth most likely novels that people lie about having read. Now, I won’t lie, I haven’t read them either – my knowledge of Russian writing has extended until now, only to Chekhov, so I was very excited to get down to the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley to see Arrows & Traps Theatre Company tackle Helen Edmundson‘s stage adaptation of Anna Karenina – what turned out to be – a Russian masterpiece of forbidden love and sacrifice.
Anna Karenina

Although Ellie Jacob‘s tortured Anna is the title role, it is particularly fine work from David Paisley as Levin that tells this story – taking us through Anna’s troubled mind and even more troubled marriage, to her love affair with Count Vronsky and the waves it causes in the rest of her life. Levin also tells his own story, of unrequited love and how even our smallest choices affect our lives. One of the great beauties of Edmundson’s adaptation is that it discusses the complexity of mental health, and its effect on relationships through a modern lens, but the story is discussing it in a 19th century way. It asks what it means to be trapped.  Can we ever be truly sure we’ve chosen right?

There are one or two moments which I think could be more pointed, both in clarity of speech and design, most notably Anna’s final speech and the last scene of the first act. The music choices, a blend between modern and classical sound worlds work wonderfully but whilst the dance sequences are brilliant fun, the choreography could do with being a little less rigid, to give the actors more to work with. The shadow of death that staggers through Anna’s mind throughout the play is shared between the actors, and whilst the image remains strong, some are better equipped than others to convey McGregor’s intent.
That said, the ensemble are incredibly tight, acquitting themselves with panache in both comedy and high drama. Indeed, this may be the best ensemble work I’ve seen in a London theatre in the last year. Special mention must go to Spencer Osborne‘s side splittingly funny priest at confession and Cornelia Baumann whose performance as Dolly is as perfectly nuanced and heartbreaking as one could ask for on a London stage. Adam Elliot‘s Karenin begins as posh as Hugh Laurie in his early days, but ends managing to pull wonderful, unexpected heart from the character.
All of the cast truly connect with each other and the text, and they move slickly through fiendishly difficult costume, character and scene changes. Movement work by Will Pinchin is what sets this story on fire – it is fringe ingenuity at its very best, without need of expansive set or complicated props. Director Ross McGregor tames this story of countless intertwined characters and plots with a deft hand, and Edmundson’s adaptation ties everything together with the brilliant device of Anna and Levin’s imagined relationship. She condenses what must be a mammoth story to tell on paper (864 pages I’m told) into two and a half hours which pounds by more vigorously than Vronsky on race day (apologies, you’ll have to see it to get that reference).
All in all, this is fringe theatre at its best. A story of epic proportions, told by a small cast in an even smaller space – you connect with every character from the French governess to the tragic Anna Karenina herself, and you emerge hopeful and exhilarated onto the streets of South East London, ready to convince the next person who asks, that you’ve read the book. 4.5/5
Review written by Samuel Clay.
Anna Karenina is currently showing at the Jack Studio until Saturday 2nd April. For more information on the production, visit here…
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