Anna Karenina’ is perhaps an unusual choice for a school play. Transferring the many layers of emotional complexity with the epic scope of one of the world’s great novels was always going to be a challenge, especially as so much of the narrative is played in the imagination of the central characters.
How does a young actor even begin to approach an understanding of what it is to betray and be betrayed; to feel love, pity and shame; to sense declining beauty and strength and face the spectre of death; to love a son and be denied access? That is before they even start to act them out.
Take these as your themes, try to make the psychological physical and then add in train accidents, ballrooms, bedrooms, horse-racing stadia, public meetings, forests and farms in nineteenth century Russia. Nobody in their right mind would touch it, even with Helen Edmundson’s creative adaptation.
Nikki Plowman as Director and Mark Jenkins leading his stage management team proved there was plenty of method in their madness and produced a remarkable piece.
Performing the play in the Traverse, and using the entire length of the Speech Hall, created an immersive and intense experience for an audience captivated by the brilliance of Jemima Stephenson, as Anna, and Adam Forrester as Levin, who in their dialogues together narrate both their changing feelings and the action of a real and imagined past, present and future.
It would be so easy for them to have over acted yet they manage to control masterfully the rise and fall of their emotions. To convey them through conversation, held at times 10 metres apart, is a mature and impressive achievement.
The script is demanding for all of the main protagonists and each actor had to convey both plot and character change. Pippa Lock as the betrayed wife coming to terms with age; Henry de Villiers as the philandering but likeable husband; Will Chambers as a politician battling to control himself, his reputation and his wife; Tom Nicole as the charming Count Vronsky losing his identity and Becca Harnby as the faithful, love lorn Kitty powerfully tell their own story and in their interactions and intertwining enhance that of the others.
With the ensemble performing both a choric and a technical function, they also added social depth and texture.
The inclusion of puppets and physical theatre meant that we were always aware that we were watching a performance, yet somehow we experienced it with the intensity of a reader imagining a fiction as if it were real.
I never once thought I would be moved by a puppet acting as if it were ashamed. ‘Anna Karenina’ really is a triumph.