Leo Tolstoy, adapted by Jo Clifford
West Yorkshire Playhouse and Royal Exchange Theatre
Courtyard Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse
In script, in direction, and in overall design there is a stark theatricality to the opening sequences of this production. It is exciting to experience, to see the play begin to establish itself and unfold.
Jo Clifford’s adaptation of Leo Tolstoy’s great celebration and tragedy of love is cool and clean and courageous. Characters announce themselves as they step into the lights, dialogue segues from scene to scene and plot development is fluid. A deceptively simple and heavily symbolic traverse set (Joanna Scotcher) clearly has surprises in store. And soon they come. The whole is enthralling.
So the first half hour of developing narrative had me on my seat edge. But gradually niggling doubts came in. Things got a little muddy. There is too much ambiguous doubling, sometimes I found myself wondering who was what and where are we now?
And once you have to pose yourself such questions, other niggles come up. Why are some actors treating us to comedic movement (that awful running around on bent legs that seems to be becoming fashionable on stage, where does it come from?).
Then I found myself assessing ages of actors and characters. And where were the characters from? A Scottish Dolly (Claire Brown) is okay, and I don’t have any problem with a black Anna (Ony Uhiara). But I do have problems with an Anna who comes with an estuary accent that flutters around Dalston, not to mention 21st century body language.
And it’s not just Ony Uhiara, it’s as if half the characters are in one play and the other half in another; one foot in the present, another in the past.
For all this we must blame the director (Ellen McDougall). If an actor isn’t up to taking direction, swap roles, swap actors, and make sure you get a better casting director next time. Not enough money to undertake adequate rehearsal? Cut some of the scenes and or keep on giving notes throughout the run until the production is up to snuff.
In fact cutting some scene would be no bad thing. Some of the muddiness is due to the attention pulling scenes dealing with interest of Levin’s (John Cummins) love for the land, the peasantry, his book, and his young wife Katy (Gillian Saker). Well acted, well scripted, well overdone!
There are other much smaller side issues, a peasant’s sick wife, dodgy tree dealers, debts and job applications. Stuff that should be cut or mentioned in passing. Because they are in the novel is no justification for putting them on stage.
At what should be the pounding heart of it all, Vronsky (Robert Gilbert) and Anna are a striking couple, but their love seems superficial. Not the stuff of Tolstoy’s novel. Again this must be placed on Ellen McDougall’s doorstep. This was not a first night, the play had already run at the Royal Exchange, time enough for notes, time enough for revisions and edits.
We came to see the great doomed love story. To be torn apart. To feel the pain and pity of it. Perchance to weep! The other stuff is needed in a novel, and there is space for it, but not on stage. It gets in the way.
By the time we have reached the conclusion, the stark, harsh reality of Anna’s death is almost lost in the litter of sub-plots and business and who’s who now. I felt it might have been more appropriate for this Anna to have muttered "Oh sod it!" and gone off to open an artisanal sour dough bakery stall in Spitalfields market. Which is not a thought one should have at such a time!
Perhaps I am being so negative because the opening sequences were so thrilling. Perhaps if there had been less promise there would have been less disappointment. There are wonderful moments throughout. Cut to a one-hour production this could be an amazing piece of contemporary theatre. It has all the ingredients. I would love to see it. There is so much here to admire. But here the whole is seriously flawed.
However, don’t take my word for it, see for yourself. A curate’s egg is better than no egg at all.
Reviewer: Ray Brown