To the bitter end

Despite impressive production and some great performances, Colin Murphy finds the Gate production of Anna Karenina cold


It's been two-and-a-half hours already, and Anna Karenina has been married to one man, run off with another, returned to the husband, left him again for the lover, threatened the marriage of a third, and right now is prostrate on the stage, crying, because she fears her lover is growing distant. “He hates me, he's in love with someone else...” she cries, and goes on and on, culminating in a despairing wail, “What am I going to do?”Fortunately, she finds an answer soon after, and throws herself under a train. Although this is a well-crafted and beautifully-designed production, Anna's end, signalling the end of an arduous production, is not before its time.Anna Karenina is an intriguing early-modern heroine: she is an icon of early feminism and liberal individualism, and her demise is clearly an indictment of her society, one that values social convention above integrity. These ideas are clear and articulate in this play, but they are abstract ideas, the stuff of discourse, not drama.

As a character, Anna Karenina is remote and her plight, though interesting, is unaffecting.This is an adaptation by Helen Edmundson of Leo Tolstoy's 1875, 837-page novel, about a woman who dares to leave her husband to live with her lover, but is ultimately destroyed by the public opprobrium and social isolation that results.Even at three hours (including interval), this production feels like a hastily-sketched summary of the novel, a Cliffs Notes on stage. There are the marital, pre-marital and extra-marital exploits of at least three couples to document, numerous locations and ensemble set-pieces, and various motifs to be fitted in – on top of the intellectual debates.Director Michael Barker-Caven deals impressively with the ensuing technical challenges and, visually, the production is elegant and witty. It flows seamlessly from scene to scene, the dialogue interleavened with striking tableaux and burlesque set-pieces, and he takes full advantage of Simon Higlett's almost-bare set and Paul Pyant's superbly atmospheric lighting. But emotionally, it remains almost barren.

At the core of the problem is Paris Jefferson's performance as Anna Karenina. Jefferson plays as if on a Broadway stage: her voice rings through the theatre with clarity and intelligence and she moves with poise and precision, but her performance lacks the subtlety and intimacy that the Gate allows. Her voice has a ringing, declamatory tone, and gradually acquires a shrewish edge as Anna Karenina's resolve weakens. She lacks both enigma and vulnerability; without them, Anna Karenina's extraordinary attractiveness is hard to fathom, and her demise is pathetic, not tragic.Anna Karenina's relationship with the young army man, Count Vronsky, is at the heart of the play. Jonathan Forbes, as the count, is competent, but cannot compensate for the lack of intimacy in Jefferson's performance with the ardour of his own. Their relationship is a litany of effusive declarations of love, with none of the eroticism or intimacy that credibility requires. There is much loudly-proclaimed passion, but the sparks never fly.

Peter Gowen is the real star of this production: he plays a gentleman farmer, Levin, with an understated, reflective quality that is itself compelling and that gives him space to raise the pitch considerably in more emotional scenes that, as a result, are gripping.The original 1992 production of Helen Edmundson's adaptation by British company Shared Experience won awards and critical acclaim, and this production was heartily received by a nearly-full house on Monday night. I found it competent, only briefly compelling; worth seeing for Peter Gowen's performance, the design and staging detail of this production, and the richness of the source material, but cold.