Entertainment Theatre & Arts

Monday 19 August 2019

Theatre: Abbey's trashy Anna is unrecognisable

Anna Karenina, Abbey Theatre

Barbara Brennan as Countess Vronskaya and Lisa Dwan as Anna in a new version of 'Anna Karenina' by Marina Carr. Photo: Ros Kavanagh
Barbara Brennan as Countess Vronskaya and Lisa Dwan as Anna in a new version of 'Anna Karenina' by Marina Carr. Photo: Ros Kavanagh

Emer O'Kelly

Marina Carr has written a new play for the Abbey. It tells the story of a bored woman who leaves her husband for a 'dashing' army officer, ends up hating him, knows that she's made a mess of her life, and kills herself. Her actions inevitably impinge to greater or lesser degrees on her immediate circle, all of whom cope as best they can.

It seems to be set in the 1940s, the 1920s, the 1970s, a nod to the 1980s, and a dash of the 21st century, according to the costumes - and all at the same time. The characters talk about travelling between Moscow and their country estates, but according to a good many of the accents, it seems to be set in working class Dublin, even though these people are princesses and counts.

Carr calls the piece Anna Karenina. But where either Tolstoy's towering novel, or for that matter, 1870s Tsarist Russia fits into this sprawling, uncoordinated mess, is totally unclear. It is as though director Wayne Jordan had sat his cast down and said, look guys, we'll totally ignore all of the characterizations in one of the greatest novels ever written; we'll abandon all sense of time and place, we'll get rid of the motivation created by the society in which they live, because after all, it'll mean we don't have to make any effort to move outside our comfort zone, and risk asking the audience to make any kind of imaginative leap. It'll all be nice and familiar, and yes, a Donnycarney accent will be fine for Anna, Countess Karenin, when she gets worked up.

When Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina, serfdom had been abolished in Russia for barely more than a decade. It was a society of absolute power, immense religiosity, and concomitant hypocrisy.

An affair was not an indiscretion for a woman, not merely a moral lapse. It was degradation, ostracisation, and (probably) descent into dire poverty. It was the loss forever of her children. And it was the absolute certainty that her soul was damned for eternity.

That was Anna Karenina's fate - the guilt which destroyed her relationship with Vronsky (who is also consumed with self-loathing at what he has done) drives her to opium, as her lover continues his old life with those of his own class. Isolated and driven to the edge of madness, she throws herself under a train.

Cut down to size, the magnificent novel is an old-fashioned morality tale, dressed with the intensity of 19th century life in pre-Revolutionary Russia.

But between them, Marina Carr and Wayne Jordan have given us a California-style Hollywood trash melodrama, certainly full of hysteria, but little else recognisable from the original. Most of the performances are at best, forgettable, while some are downright terrible.

Lisa Dwan's Anna is more petulant self-pitying pop star than a woman caught unawares by passion and thrust into torment.

If there are stars in this piece, they are on the male side, with a truly splendid, fully-realised Karenin from Declan Conlon, and an engagingly bluff Prince Sherbatsky from Nick Dunning.

The production is very long (three and a half hours) partly because Carr unwisely tries to include all of the complex sub-plots, and it feels every minute of it.

Not the Abbey's finest hour.

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