Royal Exchange, Manchester
Tolstoy’s classic tale of blighted love gets a stripped-down, eclectic interpretation at the Exchange, replete with multi-ethnic casting and a selection of accents that range from deepest cockney to broad Scottish. Adapted by Jo Clifford, this co-production with the West Yorkshire Playhouse casts Oblonsky (Ryan Early) as the play’s occasional narrator. Rakish and dissolute though he may be, (Early’s playful performance is one of the production’s strongest cards) he’s also the only character here who actually seems to be enjoying himself. Elsewhere all is woe and misery.
Anna (Ony Uhiara) is a faithful and dutiful wife, happy with her marriage to the older Karenin (Jonathan Keeble) until she sets eyes upon the dashing Count Vronsky (Robert Gilbert), the moment accentuated by the use of a dazzling spotlight beamed in from outside the performing area. She embarks on an affair which will have catastrophic consequences for her and those around her. Production designer Joanna Scotcher has chosen a minimalistic set, through which run a set of train tracks along which a pair of tables are pushed backwards and forwards across a central pit of earth. Through the course of the action, the latter is used to represent the earthy attributes of the likeable but muddled Levin (John Cummins), the grubby stigma attached to a married woman carrying on so brazenly and it even provides the opportunity for Karenin to (quite literally) sling some mud at his unfaithful wife. It could be argued that this symbolism is somewhat overused (and it must have been a nightmare for the play’s costume department!) but it would have been nice to see a couple of bigger set-pieces along the way – the death by train that kicks proceedings off is criminally understated and the famous horse race that is the story’s centrepiece requires all our powers of imagination to envisage.
That said, this is an accessible production of what can, in the wrong hands, be a rather ponderous story. Clifford’s skilful script clearly delineates the various strands of the tale and over the space of nearly three hours, proceedings never lose pace. It’s interesting to note that six members of the same cast will be taking on the Bruntwood Prize-winning play The Rolling Stone from Tuesday 21st of April.