Anna Karenina, Royal Exchange, Manchester, 27th March 2015

Swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshshwish. People are whispering in the Royal Exchange. In front of us, in front of what has to be described as something of a stripped down stageset (a large white box on a metal floor), several people gather holding candles. Swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshwsh. The people behind us – a father, and two younger girls, possibly his daughters or a daughter and a friend – continue to whisper. Swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshshwish. It’s immensely distracting. The play, an adaptation of Tolstoy’s immense novel, originally published in instalments between 1873 and 1877 and described as flawless by both Dostoyevsky and Nabokov – described as the best novel ever written by William Faulkner, championed by Woolf and Joyce, regarded as a transitional work between – Swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshshwish – realistic novels and modernist novels – Swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshshwish – is beginning properly.

For those of you who have yet to wrestle with the book itself and are perhaps wondering how 900+ pages of Russian literature can be transformed into an approximately two hour play, the short answer is by brutally truncating a lot of the – Swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshshwish – action (Levin only proposes once, Anna doesn’t almost die in childbirth, Vronsky doesn’t attempt suicide). There are three principal arcs in the play: the trajectory of Anna and Vronsky’s doomed love affair; the relationship between Anna’s youngest sister Kitty and Levin, a family friend; and the relationship between Anna’s older sister, Dolly, and her husband, Oblonsky. Introduced to the latter first, Oblonsky, a comic, shady figure has cheated on his wife with their governess and been found out. Anna (arriving on a train, in the company of the woman we learn is Vronsky’s mother) takes Oblonsky’s side and persuades Dolly to give him another chance. Meanwhile, Anna – introduced to Vronsky at the station (their eyes meet, an intrusive sound effect lets you know, in case you were worried you’d missed something, that THIS IS A SIGNIFICANT EVENT – the sound effect also serves to let you know that possibly this grand novel is being adapted by people who worry about the intelligence of their audience and feel the need to rely on sound effects rather than acting to transmit a major event) – meets him again at the coming out ball of her sister, Kitty. Kitty has been working her magic on Vronsky and expects him to propose. She is, of course, disappointed. As is Levin, who actually does propose to her.

Swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshswish, though. Swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshshwish. Swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshshwish. Swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshshwish. We turn around. We stare. We are stared back at in return. Swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshshwish. Swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshshwish. Across the aisle, another gentleman begins to talk with his wife. It is as if she can’t quite figure out what is going on and it’s rankling her a bit. He attempts to explain to her: swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshshwish. Not to be outdone, the people behind us swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshshwish and swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshsh and swssshshshshsshwishwishshshshshshshwish. Thankfully (for us) the Royal Exchange is not full. We start to scout the rows of empty seats opposite us for a place we can move to.

However, we must not let ourselves be distracted untowardly from our appreciation, or otherwise, of the Royal Exchange’s adaptation of Anna Karenina. If we are considering details and the way in which details can accrete to give you a firm grasp on whether a particular play is working for you or not, we must consider Kitty’s coming out ball. Vronsky dances with Kitty. Stately music is playing. And then Anna appears in a very beautiful black dress. Vronsky has eyes for no-one else. The two of them dance. The stately music gives way to a contemporary pop song (we don’t know the contemporary pop song but it sounds like Sade fronting an Anthony and the Johnsons covers band) and Anna and Vronsky dance seductively, their wrists intertwined and somewhat slappy (we were reminded of the rather slappy love scene between Jeremy Irons and Juliet Binoche in Louis Malle’s Damage, a love scene that elicited laughter from people in the cinema way back in 1992 – we were also reminded of the scene in Wayne’s World where Wayne sees Cassandra for the first time and the rock song Cassandra is playing gives way to Gary Wright’s Dreamweaver – the transition is a bit crass is what we’re saying). The dance goes on for WAY TOO LONG. We get the point. They’re into each other. We desire them to move on. They do not move on. The intertwined wrists slappy dance goes on.

At this point, a young couple meekly left. By the time you reach the dance you kind of know it’s not going to get better. Kudos to the couple willing to sacrifice the price of their seats in order to get their Friday night back. Your humble reviewer, however, remained – Swssshshshshsshwishwishsh – in his seat in order to fully translate to you the experience of witnessing what is essentially a gallop through the immensity of Anna Karenina. Some scenes are fine. They do the job. Others – I’m thinking of the way in which they choose to translate Vronsky’s day at the races, a pair of Perspex flaps raised, Anna’s husband Karenin pelting her with mud (there is a lot of mud in this particular production – they could introduce a brief foray into a full cast rendition of ‘Mud, Glorious Mud’ at this point – it would certainly lift proceedings), Vronsky’s nag nowhere to be seen, a less than rudimentary grasp of the book probably leaving you in some doubt as to WHAT IS ACTUALLY GOING ON – work less well. A fair bit of the acting is of the ‘if I have to show an emotion, I need to show it on my face in a way that even idiots can understand’, so we get a lot of very wide eyed, very emotive, posturing. Elements of the production feel somewhat amateur. Elements of the production feel somewhat sixth form. It’s hard to care. Certainly your reviewer didn’t have the best of times. Even after we moved, the play didn’t improve. So the experience wasn’t entirely down to incredibly rude people who apparently don’t know you shouldn’t talk incessantly in a theatre.

It takes all sorts, though. And one man’s meat etc. As we emerged, blinking, grateful (above all grateful) into the lobby of the Royal Exchange, a pair of old dears in front of us had the following exchange:

First old dear: That was good, that, wasn’t it?

Second old dear: It was. It was very good.

So what do we know? Perhaps it was good after all – perhaps it was very good. Your humble reviewer, however, will choose to file this alongside other Royal Exchange misfires (the adaptation of Macbeth set in a concentration camp, Filter Theatre Company’s version of Midsummer Night’s Dream, Julie Hesmondhalgh’s first post Coronation Street endeavour Blindsided) and politely exit stage left, pursued by bear.

Peter Wild

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