I think I’ve read somewhere once that Leo Tolstoy, for his writing style and his impressively acute insight into women’s psychology, could have been a woman. The new production of Anna Karenina by London-based Russian company Xameleon Theatre, performed by an all-female cast, is Tolstoy as genuine, pure and profound as it can get.
The intricate and substantial plot of the novel (which, for the non-adepts, is around one thousand pages long) is rendered with admirable agility in a two-act pièce. Condensed into a play, the script retains Tolstoy’s explosive potential, but in a digestible format. The action mostly flows smooth and natural, and while the performance is in Russian, the English surtitles make the whole thing rather accessible.
Much like the book, the play follows the stories of Anna Karenina, married to Karenin but in love with Vronsky, and ready to sacrifice her life for her ideals, and of Konstantin Levin, who (after proposing to her twice) finds the meaning of life in his marriage with Kitty. The main focus of this production is actually Anna: the tragic undertones of her story take over the more hopeful message of Levin’s, whose happier vicissitudes are dealt with somewhat hastily. But the choice makes sense in a show where women take centre stage.
During the interval, my friend and I had a discussion about how many actors were actually involved in the show. Incredibly, the cast is made of just four actresses, who take up all the roles in turn, and poignantly all impersonate Anna Karenina at some point during the play. A simple, but effective way to show the many facets of Anna Karenina, “bringing together a collective image of the true woman”, as the programme reads. Indeed, Tolstoy himself claims that “woman…is such a subject that however much you study it, it’s always perfectly new”, and the cast play this by the book.
Among the four performers, Alexandra Tsarkova was particularly impressive, seamlessly going from Lenin to Kitty’s parents (yes, both of them), and from Alexei Karenin to Anna Karenina herself. In Tsarkova’s interpretation of Karenin in particular, I found exactly the character I had imagined when reading the novel: an annoyingly pedantic and self-absorbed man, concerned exclusively with his own morality and with saving his face.
Director Dmitry Turchaninov went for an overall minimalistic aesthetics: the set design consists of two wheeled benches and two hangers where masks, jackets and skirts are tidily picked up and put down during the show. Tolstoy doesn’t really need any additional faff, and the play is admirably nimble also thanks to its simple design. The one and only thing I found a bit distracting was the loud noise made the wheels of the benches, which at times ended up shadowing the lines of the characters.
Extravagant stage décor and extra props are not really needed also because there are splendid pieces of physical theatre and mime woven into the action, coordinated by Movement Director Natalia Fedorova. Skating in the air, stolen glances in slow-motion, dancing, horse-riding, and parallel broken hugs pepper the play, increasing exponentially the imaginative possibilities of the show.
Last but not least, the timeliness and relevance of Tolstoy is almost scary: on the same day I went to see the show, I read an article in The Times about the proliferation of sexless couples, which mentioned “the Westermarck effect”. Proposed by Finnish anthropology Edvard Westermarck, the theory suggests that humans have an innate tendency to lose desire for people they live with for a sustained period of time without having sex with them, which in turns ends up making them feel like siblings. As I watched the play, which spans out the disruptive effects of desire, betrayal, and retaliation, and the consequences of a marriage without passion, I became aware not only that Tolstoy is one of the best novelists of all times, but also that Xameleon Theatre did full justice to his genius.
Anna Karenina played at The Cockpit 16 – 18 May 2019. More information about Xameleon Theatre can be found on their website.