LEAVE any thoughts of the classic 1935 MGM or 1948 Alexander Korda romantic films, starring Greta Garbo and Vivien Leigh, at the door – Lesley Hart’s new interpretation of Leo Tolstoy’s 800-plus page novel is far more realistically gritty than either of those.
The writer and director Polina Kalinina keeps the story visually fixed in late 19th century Russia, with striking costumes, hair-styles and props. But, with a constant use of expletives and harsh visual images, the production has a far more modern feel. This certainly helps to convey the idea that there is still a reactionary hierarchy in western society and government that has changed little during the last century and a half.
The illicit love affair between the married Anna Karenina and the dashing Count Vronsky – an affair that dooms them in the hypocritical straightjacket of Russian society of the period – is still at the heart of the story. But there are no holds barred as we watch the animal passion between them lift them to sexual highs before destroying them.
Anna is one of those gift roles that bring the best out of those lucky enough to land the part. Displaying more than the usual degree of selfishness as she forfeits the love of all those close to her for carnal love and passion, Lindsey Campbell still demands our sympathy as her uncontrollable lust drives her to destroy herself.
This picture is enhanced by Stephen McCole’s sympathetic performance as Anna’s husband Karenin. Not the usual cold-hearted bully, instead this is someone who bends over backwards to give Anna a chance to return to the fold, before finally admitting defeat, and returning to a heartless, human stone statue.
Like many a fine actor before him, Robert Akodoto found Count Vronsky a bit of a poisoned chalice. He had no trouble presenting the handsome, dashing young officer. But that animal magnetism that makes him irresistible to Anna never fully materialised, even in the most intimate of love-making scene. As he moves away from her and the weaknesses in the character appear, he once again takes full control, painting a fine picture of a man unaware of his own powers and the damage that misuse of them can and does cause.
Running parallel with the story of Anna and Vronsky is the on-off romance of Kitty, growing from flirtatious teenager to mature young mother, in the capable hands of Tallulah Greive, and Ray Sesay’s beautifully bewildered, stolid farmer Levin. The scene in which this pair and Anna and Vronsky intertwine as they separately argue about their future was a theatrical delight.
Angus Miller makes a great deal more of Anna’s ne’er-do-well spendthrift brother than just a source of laughter. His exchanges with Jamie Marie Leary as his practical, nononsense, driven-to-distraction wife were perfectly judged.
Composer and sound designer Xana and lighting designer Mark Henderson helped to build the big dramatic moments in a production that gave this new interpretation every chance to show that Tolstoy’s story still has a great deal to say to a modern audience. It is on at Bristol Old Vic until 24th June.