Anna Karenina

Gillian Saker, Only Uhiara and Robert Gilbert in Anna Karenina at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
Gillian Saker, Only Uhiara and Robert Gilbert in Anna Karenina at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester. Photo: Jonathan Keenan
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At the crucial moment when Anna Karenina (Ony Uhiara) is swept off her feet at a ball by the dashing Vronsky (Robert Gilbert), the tasteful classical music, which has quietly soundtracked Jo Clifford’s adaptation so far, gives way to a dramatic track by indie band Wild Beasts. It feels like director Ellen McDougall has taken us into a stylised music video – which very much sets the tone for this intriguing take on Tolstoy’s tragedy.

Not that this is a contemporary Karenina, but it does feel strikingly modern and streamlined, mirroring Jo Clifford’s adaptation by stripping down the novel into the two main stories – Anna’s desire to leave a stifling marriage and Levin’s dreams of the countryside simplicity. McDougall used a sandpit to represent France in Henry V at the Unicorn, and here a long earthy trench runs the length of the stage. Land is power.

McDougall also teases out the comedy – Ryan Early plays Oblonsky as a slightly pathetic wannabe playboy quickly found out by his wife (the impressively impassive Claire Brown), while Levin (John Cummins) endearingly bumbles through life. Actually, his relationship with Katy (Gillian Saker) is the most credible, as she finds clarity in motherhood.

Ony Uhiara’s Anna is not quite as satisfying. The Clifford adaptation has been criticised before for never fully committing to Anna’s desires and the fall-back position here is too often melodrama. Still, maybe the lack of focus is the point. As Anna muses: “Love’s just a messy way to hurt each other.”

Dates: March 19-May 2, then at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds, May 9-June 13, PN March 24

Verdict
McDougall’s direction is slick and engaging, but there’s more to enjoy around the edges of this Anna Karenina than at its slightly undercooked centre
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