Anna Karenina review: ‘fluid and febrile’ adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel

Lindsey Campbell gives a ‘terrific’ performance in the title role

Anna Karenina at Royal Lyceum Theatre in Edinburgh
A production that ‘fairly blazes with a theatrical energy’
(Image credit: Robbie McFadzean)

This entertaining co-production of “Anna Karenina”, which transfers from Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre to Bristol Old Vic next month, “began as a dare”, said Fergus Morgan in The Stage. The British-Russian director Polina Kalinina was complaining to the Scottish writer Lesley Hart that Russian literary texts typically “suffered from staidness and staleness in translation”. In response, Hart challenged Kalinina to collaborate with her on a stage adaptation, to put this situation right.

The result is a “fluid and febrile” production that makes frequent use of freeze-frames and flashbacks. Inevitably, much is lost in condensing Tolstoy’s 800-page-plus novel into a two-and-a-half-hour play, but the “central three intertwining love stories are explored with raw, riveting intent” – and there’s a “terrific” performance from Lindsey Campbell in the title role: “fierce yet fragile, vicious yet vulnerable, passionate yet panicky”.

With its “modern Scots inflection” and fiercely feminist slant, this adaptation may not “please purists”, said Joyce McMillan in The Scotsman. But the narrative unfolds with “breathtaking pace and ferocity”, and the production and cast “fairly blaze with a theatrical energy that puts extreme emotion at the heart of the drama, and makes it a visible, living presence”. Hart has done a good job of “isolating the story’s essentials”, said Simon Thompson on What’s on Stage. And Kalinina’s split-screen effect “supercharges the action and allows different scenes to unfold simultaneously”, which helps a long story be told “with speed and fleet-footed narrative edge”.

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Even so, far too much has been lost in “whittling” the novel down into a manageable play, said Allan Radcliffe in The Times. And the use of modern speech does not help. Hearing Dolly, for example, swear at her fly-by-night husband, Stiva, is amusing, “but it sits uneasily with Tolstoy’s depiction of a buttoned-up society where deep feeling and honest expression are kept well hidden”. The play has some “stirring moments”, but “little in the way of nuance or psychological depth”.

Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh, until 3 June; Bristol Old Vic, 7-24 June. Rating ****

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