The Royal Exchange kicks off its 2015 season with a brand new adaptation of Anna Karenina. After rave reviews and record sales for Maxine Peake's Hamlet, the production has a hard act to follow, yet under the direction of award-winner Ellen McDougall, Tolstoy’s epic tragedy has little reason to feel nervous.
Set in the glamorous swirl of Imperial Russia, the book has a dual narrative that follows the tale of newlyweds Kitty and Levin as they make a simple and happy life together. Meanwhile, on a visit to her brother, Anna’s fate is sealed when she meets the mercurial and well-heeled Count Vronsky and embarks upon a passionate and forbidden love affair. Upon discovery the couple become the target of scorn, and the romance begins a heartbreaking trajectory.
Anna Karenina is a masterpiece not only because of the unforgettable woman at its core and the stark drama of her fate, but also because it explores and illuminates the deepest questions about how to live a fulfilled life. The challenge of Anna Karenina is that Tolstoy’s monster of a novel is more than just large: it is comprehensive. Writer Jo Clifford is left with little option but to cut liberally from the text and it will be interesting to see what her sharp eye focuses on to capture the tour de force of Tolstoy’s original.
McDougall is confident: "Working on this play feels like escaping into a complete world fraught with betrayal, passion, and pain – in the same way reading the novel can. This is a play that asks questions about survival in a world contained and restricted by social prejudice."
Should the play reach the emotional and intellectual heights of its 19th-century stimulus, you may be leaving the theatre feeling as though you have been hit by a train.