QUT, The Loft
March 17 – 25
Whereas my experience of Russia was characterised by the scorch of summer in St Petersburg et al, for many, the largest country in the world, is associated with the misery of a life of brutal Baltic winters. Indeed as Anna Karenina herself says in Tolstoy’s classic novel of the same name, “each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
With its sorrowful tale of suffering, “Anna Karenina” is a difficult text to translate to stage; as a pinnacle of realist fiction its prose is characteristically dense and there is always the difficulty of realising its infamous train scene and capturing the mood of the bleak winters that place its narrative. The classic tell of love and marriage in Imperial Russia is also quite a complex story. Yet, in their realisation of Helen Edmundson’s adaption, QUT’s Bachelor of Fine Arts students present a stylish piece of theatre.
Set in the late 1870s, it is the story of the beautiful married woman, Anna Karenina (Bianca Saul), visiting her incorrigible brother Stiva (Aleksander Milinkovic) in St Petersburg. A chance meeting on her journey throws her into emotional turmoil and a scandalous affair with the dashing Count Vronsky (Alex Neal). When she leaves her cold husband and their eight year old son Seryozha, for Vronsky she is ostracised by Russian society, leading to some tragic choices.
Alongside this story are the tales of the bittersweet romance between rich and powerful landowner Levin (Brendan Perex-Compton) and Kitty (Annabel Harte), the woman he believes will give his life purpose, and also that of Anna’s adulterous bother and his wife Dolly (Jessica Potts) and their struggle to recover from his affair with their governess (Ebony Nave). The combination makes for an epic overall story of more than 2.5 hours duration, which requires audience commitment. Although some incidental conversation scenes could be trimmed for efficiency, the show is immediately engaging with the audience being dropped into the action of quick fire dialogue. Director Mark Radvan has extracted much humour from the script’s social commentary around gender relationships, making for a serious production that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Indeed, all performers make the most of their moments and Ryan Hodson does not even need dialogue to show the humour of his sulk away from his governess.
As the sensuous and selfish eponymous (anti-)heroine Anna, Bianca Saul captures to perfection the essence of her enchanting charm and wit, evoking audience frustration in her deathbed ask for god’s forgiveness before throwing it back in his face by fleeing to Italy without her child, yet also sympathy when she is left broken (and pregnant by her lover), suffering from potential personality disorder.
Although Anna’s story occupies most the of the narrative space, of all the tales, Dolly’s is perhaps the most devastating, as she allows herself to be convinced by Anna to remain in her unfaithful marriage despite her yearning to live beyond it. And, as Dolly, Jessica Potts gives an accordingly heartbreaking performance, playing the character’s distress with subtle dignity.
The most impressive aspects, however, as related to the show’s stylised realisation of key narrative aspects, especially in ensemble scenes such as the Part One ball scene in which Vronsky chooses to dance with Anna and the climatic steeplecase scene in which parallel is suggested between Vronsky’s mare and Anna. The choreography is very clever and engaging, enhanced by the gentle strains of Music and Movement Director Jeremy Neideck’s choices, perfectly placed to exact emotional resonance and add interest to what could otherwise have been simple, static scenes.
Creative aspects are on-point from the bleak, mono-chromatic program design to the simple staging of black wall embossed with the play’s title in Russian, “Анна Каренина”, which make lapses in prop authenticity even more jarring in their prominence. Detailed period costumes of blacks, whites and muted greys pallet perfectly with both the steely lighting of impersonal Imperial train station scenes and the contrasting warm tones that create a cozy comfort to emotional, intimate conversations and character interactions.
Certainly this is a multi-layered text in its examination of what makes a life good, honourable, authentic and meaningful. Its thematic resonance is seen not just in its numerous film adaptations and 2015’s highly-successful ‘The Beautiful Lie’ adapted ABC mini-series, but the sold out shows that began this production’s season. If they like either stories of old or talent of new, audiences should appreciate its intensity and light moments in equal measure. And if you are after an introduction to the story, even at over 2.5 hours, it is more efficient that reading the 1000 page novel.