If, like me, you’ve often thought about reading Tolstoy but been put off just by looking at the list of characters, let alone the number of pages, help is at hand. In their first non-Shakespeare production, Arrows & Traps have pulled off the astonishing achievement of compressing a 1,000-page novel into a little under three hours, with a cast of just eight, whilst still remaining faithful to the plot.
Anna, the respected wife of provincial governor Karenin (Adam Elliott), abandons her duty and reputation when she’s swept into a passionate affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Will Mytum). Meanwhile landowner Levin has money and power, and the freedom to do anything he likes, but is desperately in love with Kitty (Pippa Caddick), the woman he believes will give his life purpose. Anna and Levin’s lives fit together to make a whole, with each possessing what the other longs for, and Helen Edmundson’s adaptation, directed by Ross McGregor, highlights this synergy beautifully. The stories unfold in parallel, and though Anna and Levin have never met, from the outset each becomes the voice of reason for the other, the one they confide in and from whom they seek help and comfort. Their dialogue also serves a second, more practical purpose, filling in the gaps with regard to setting and context, so that each time one asks the other, ‘Where are you now?’ it’s as much for our benefit as theirs.
As a result, the production needs little in the way of set or props, and the story is carried almost wholly by the fantastic cast. Most of them take on multiple roles, but keep them perfectly distinct, so we always know who we’re looking at, and even the comparatively minor roles are memorable (I particularly enjoyed Hannah Wilder’s giggling, superficial Princess Betsy). The two leads, Ellie Jacob and David Paisley, each capture to perfection the essence of their character: Anna’s charm and quick wit, which enchant everyone she meets, have a similar effect on the audience, while Levin wins our sympathy as a good, honest man radiating quiet desperation at the lack of direction in his life.
A third plot thread involves Anna’s adulterous brother Stiva (Spencer Lee Osborne) and his long-suffering wife Dolly, who’s played by Cornelia Baumann in a truly heartbreaking performance. Of all the stories, Dolly’s is perhaps the most devastating, as she lets Anna convince her to remain in her unfaithful marriage, and consequently ends up feeling she’s never really lived at all.
What’s particularly impressive about Arrows & Traps’ production is the way it somehow manages to be both intimate and epic, getting right to the heart of the characters but also capturing the scale of the novel. There are a few moments – the ballroom, the races, and in particular Anna and Vronsky in the snow – that feel almost cinematic, which is quite an achievement on such a tiny little stage.
Anna Karenina has a bit of everything – romance, tragedy (by the way, the death scenes are brilliantly done, and in one case almost a bit too convincing), drama, social commentary, and even a few moments of comedy to lighten the mood. With 1,000 pages of text to condense down, it’s no surprise that this is an intense and gripping production – but one that I’d happily go and see again tomorrow.
It’s even made me consider reading the novel. Well, maybe…