Royal Lyceum

Anna Karenina


Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

As dares go, this one – from Scottish writer Lesley Hart to British-Russian director Polina Kalinina – has turned out rather well, resulting in this sparky adaptation of Tolstoy’s classic novel. It certainly disproves Kalinina’s original contention that Russian texts tend to “lose vigour and immediacy in translation”: this piece is both vigorous and immediate.

The plot is well-known. Anna (Lindsey Campbell) – bored society wife and loving mother – visits her sister-in-law Dolly (Jamie Marie Leary)’s family estate, hoping to persuade her to forgive Anna’s feckless brother, Stiva (Angus Miller), for his affair with a governess. But it’s a fateful visit, because it’s here that Anna meets Vronsky (Robert Akodoto) – and embarks upon a tumultuous affair that will have a terrible impact. The story is pared back here, of course – four-hundred-thousand words of prose are condensed into a tight two-and-a-half-hours of drama – and it’s all the better for it. The book’s lengthy histrionics are economically conveyed by Xana’s deliberately grating sound design, which feels akin to being in a dentist’s chair, the screeching somehow inside your head. It’s not pleasant, but it’s strikingly effective.

Hart’s script highlights the biting unfairness of a patriarchal order, where Stiva’s many sexual transgressions cause him only minor trouble when they’re revealed, while Anna’s single affair turns her into a social pariah, shunned by her former peers, and – most painfully – banned from seeing her own son (played tonight by Noah Osmani). Her tragic end, prefigured by a brutal train accident at the start of the play, hangs literally over her head throughout: Emma Bailey’s stark design is dominated by this sword of Damocles, a huge screw-like ceiling pendant, each action causing it to turn another notch, embedding itself into Anna’s heart.

I love the urgency of the opening: a dinner party tableau that stutters and lurches into life. The characters are boldly drawn and instantly recognisable, from Karenin (Stephen McCole)’s supercilious reserve to Stiva’s self-indulgence and Levin (Ray Sesay)’s naïve modesty. The sliding screen upstage is ingenious too, opening to reveal a snowy railway platform, or pastoral wheat fields that seem to offer the hope of a simpler life.

Campbell’s Anna is a believable creation, beautiful and confident and relatively content – until she’s blindsided by her attraction for Vronsky. The tragedy here is as much about the corruption of their love as it about her death. What they have is real, but it’s destroyed by social mores and jealousy. It’s not their relationship that ruins Anna; it’s the stifling rules we humans impose upon ourselves.

So is Tolstoy still relevant and appealing in the twenty-first century? If this Royal Lyceum and Bristol Old Vic production is anything to go by, the answer is a resounding yes!

4.2 stars

Susan Singfield

Castle Lennox


Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh

The titular Castle Lennox is a hospital, but not as we know it. Places like this – providing long-term residential care for people with learning disabilities, shutting them off from the outside world – no longer exist. Here, playwright Linda McLean explores the pros and the cons: the deep, affecting friendships forged and the toxic regime, rife with bullying.

It’s 1969 and teenager Annis (Emma McCaffrey) is proving too much of a handful for her stepmother (Fletcher Mathers). Annis is lively, independent and full of fun, and she also has a learning disability, which means she’s eligible for enrolment at Castle Lennox. Simultaneously entranced and terrified by its fairytale appearance, Annis enters with hope as well as trepidation. But the staff nurse (Mathers again) takes against her, and – as the years tick inexorably by – Annis’s spirit seems to be quashed. Thankfully, there are also some moments of joy, such as her tentative romance with fellow patient, William (Gavin Yule) – but is she too institutionalised to cope when, twenty years later, Castle Lennox finally closes down?

Castle Lennox, directed by Maria Oller, is a joint production between the Lyceum and Lung Ha, Scotland’s leading theatre company for learning disabled actors. It’s a superb example of how empowering and inclusive drama can be, a cleverly-woven narrative that both supports and enables its fine cast, as well as engaging a sold-out house. McCaffrey shines in the lead role, but fellow actors Yule, Emma Clark (Jo) and Nicola Tuxworth (Marie) also stand out, the latter clearly relishing her devilish character.

But, although the individuals are great, it’s the choral scenes that really make this piece. Movement director Janice Parker creates a bold dynamic, evoking the cheerful chaos of the laundry and Saturday tea parties, and the performers are all absolutely on their game, singing and dancing with gusto and aplomb. BSL interpreter Rachel Amey is nicely integrated into the production, subtly assuming the role of Annis’s dead mother, reassuring her daughter when she’s feeling low.

Karen Tennent’s nifty set places us first in an enchanted forest, where a grand gateway yields to an altogether more prosaic and clinical space, where white curtains segregate the patients from outsiders – and from each other. The costume design (by Alison Brown) also helps to locate us both in time and place, and I like the way Annis’s clothes become drabber as the institution wears her down.

All in all, Castle Lennox is a delight, well-deserving of the standing ovation it receives tonight.

4 stars

Susan Singfield

The Suppliant Women


Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh


It’s a rare thing indeed when you go into a theatre and are treated to something unique – but that is the word that kept coming to me, as I sat entranced in the stalls of The Lyceum, watching David Greig’s production of The Suppliant Women. Written by Aeschylus two thousand, five hundred years ago, this wasn’t the usual contemporary adaptation of classic Greek theatre, but an attempt (costumes aside) to present it pretty much as it must have been performed in its original incarnation, complete with libations of wine and milk, choral odes and synchronised movement.

Add to this the fact that the cast of more than fifty performers is composed mostly of amateurs and you might have some notion of what an ambitious production this is, but you certainly won’t be prepared for the skill and grace with which the performers deliver their roles. Here’s a chorus, speaking as one, where you can hear every single word – a chorus that moves around the crowded stage with uncanny precision. They have only been rehearsing this since early September, yet their dedication shows at every turn.

The story may be thousands of years old and yet it’s remarkably prescient for our troubled times. The women of the title have fled their native Egypt where they are being forced to marry their cousins and, accompanied by their father, Danaaus (Omar Ebrahim), they arrive in Argos, seeking asylum. They take shelter in the temple of Zeus where they are met by The King (Oscar Batterham) who feels conflicted about their presence – to turn them away will offend Zeus, but the King is also aware that the local populace may take against these women, who are after all, migrants – and what if their presence here should cause a war between Argos and Egypt?

Skilfully directed by Ramin Grey, with musical accompaniment of percussion and Aulos (a traditional double-reeded instrument), this is a feast for the senses. The performance area is a bare breeze block paved space, that utilises the whole depth of the Lyceum’s curtainless stage, but there’s wonderfully atmospheric lighting (a scene set in near darkness where every woman carries a lantern is particularly effective) and plaudits must go to chorus leader, Gemma May, who manages to deliver all of her potentially tongue-twisting lines with absolute authority. If the idea of watching traditional Greek drama leaves you cold, don’t be misled – this is a riveting slice of theatre that deserves a wide audience.

Go, enjoy. There may not be a show like this one for another two thousand, five hundred years.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney