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Anna Karenina - Royal Exchange

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by David Keyworth (subscribe)
Iím a freelance journalist and published poet, based in Manchester. My debut poetry pamphlet is available at
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Russian romance
Everyone knows that being in love is no fun if you happen to find yourself in a Russian play or novel.

Anna Karenina is, of course, no exception. Right from the outset the revelation of an affair threatens to uproot a marriage. From then on, the odds on any of the characters achieving domestic bliss get longer and longer.
Royal Exchange Anna Karenina
Gillian Saker as Katy, Ony Uhiara as Anna and Robert Gilbert as Vronsky. Photo - Jonathan Keenan.

Having never even attempted to read Tolstoy's weighty saga of aristocratic pre-revolutionary Russian folk, I don't envy Jo Clifford's challenge of adapting the novel into a two hour play.

Some of the story's set pieces are a gift to the writer, particularly the Moscow ball where Anna (Ony Uhiara), already married to Karenin (Jonathan Keeble), is enraptured by Count Vronsky (Robert Gilbert). For good measure, the ball also includes a marriage proposal from shy landowner Levin (John Cummins) to Katy (Gillian Saker). She is seething with jealousy that Anna has replaced her as the Count's dancing partner and rejects her admirer.
Royal Exchange Anna Karenina
Ony Uhiara as Anna, Jonathan Keeble as Karenin and Robert Gilbert as Vronsky. Photo - Jonathan Keenan.

Katy and Levin are two characters who translate well to the theatre. Levin is particularly touching, especially in the scenes where, rejected in romance, he returns to his estate and his love of agricultural life.

Levin sees the advance of the modern world, particularly the railways, as a danger to the natural world. There is some smart theatrical design and staging to dramatise the long physical distances that the railways enable the characters to travel.

Emotional distances remain though, especially in the disintegration of Anna's marriage. Jonathan Keeble offsets the tragedy with humour in the way he delivers some of the uptight Karenin's lines.

In the second half of the play, the character of Anna and the actor playing her, become a stronger stage presence, as her mental stability falls apart in a series of frantic monologues.
Photo - Jonathan Keenan
Photo - Jonathan Keenan.

Inevitably, Jo Clifford's adaptation never fully escapes its primary source. Some of the dialogue sounds too proselike. But it's an enjoyable, atmospheric and often affecting night at the theatre, whether or not you've read the book or fully intend to tackle it at some point in the future.

Anna Karenina is a co-production with West Yorkshire Playhouse, where it runs from 9th May to 13th June.

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Why? Classic Russian novel turned into accomplished play
Phone: 0161 833 9833
Where: Royal Exchange, Manchester
Cost: From £10
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