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  • Writer's picturePaul Gainey

Anna Karenina, Bristol Old Vic Theatre

Bristol Old Vic’s summer blockbuster for 2023 is a world premiere of Tolstoy’s 19th century classic, ‘Anna Karenina’, adapted for the stage by writer, Lesley Hart, and directed by Polina Kalinina, which impressively translate Tolstoy’s 600 page novel into a delectable on-stage spectacular.

(my review was posted on Bristol Live and the Bristol Post website yesterday)

Anna (Lindsey Campbell) crosses the country by train to help save her brother’s marriage, after his affair is disclosed. At the station, she crosses paths with the cavalry officer, Count Vronsky (Robert Akodoto), and as they fall for one another, her life as she knows it begins to unravel.

Subplots include the on-off romance between Kitty (Tallulah Greive) and Kostya (Ray Sesay) and the comic misadventures of Anna’s chronically philandering brother Stiva (Angus Miller). Hart merges and interlocks scenes and dialogue so that characters can appear in two scenes at the same time, both describing and participating, and two narratives can take place simultaneously.

The staging allows space for some beautiful widescreen images, like Anna in the snow and merged scenes are almost choreographic in their blocking. And you will never have seen a horse race staged quite like this. It is truly one of those moments when live theatre shows its uniqueness.

It is an accomplishment - seductive, disturbing, and tragic. The production is visually stunning and, despite the small cast, the play feels grandiose and immersive. At times humorous, at times devastatingly heart-breaking, an impassioned, emotional experience.

Tolstoy’s vast novel of illicit love among the nobility of Czarist Russia, begins and ends with the image of death on the railroad tracks: the first an accident witnessed by the married Anna and her lover-to-be, Count Vronsky, and the second a suicide, the most famous in literature.

In Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Anna’s fate is like an unstoppable train that bears down on her from the moment she strays from the code that governs her sex, class and culture.

This revival captures the book’s tragic, inexorable power. There is a dark, ominous note that’s always thrumming away, reminding us that actions have consequences and present pleasures come with future costs.

We see Anna as she first encounters Vronsky (played with airy lightness by Robert Akodoto) over the body of an old man struck by a train, his life crushed out of him in an instant. The connection is made between erotic attraction and death, two forces that disrupt every effort at order and control.

Working from a novel with dozens of characters and many subplots, writer Hart had no choice but to narrow the adaptation’s focus onto key figures and moments. Whereas the novel is, among other things, a portrait of a still-feudal country undergoing modernization, the play is essentially the story of a love triangle consisting of Anna, the husband for whom she has a strong but passionless love, and the lover she craves not least because their relationship is so thrillingly, romantically transgressive.

A study in scandal, the play follows its main character as she commences an affair with an army cavalry officer. Information is conveyed through gossip, and cleverly executed scenes show both the action of the event and the resulting hearsay and slander from society.

This makes the show easily digestible and creatively conveys the heady influence of rumours and idle talk.

Lindsay Campbell’s performance as Anna has a vibrancy which brings her alive on stage, displaying her cleverness, her misjudgements, her naive determination. As a woman imprisoned in a misogynistic society where she fails to even have rights to her own child, Karenina is also a sympathetic figure.

By this point, Campbell has gone from the pragmatic mother to a woman let loose from social constraints. Where she was calm facing down her jealous husband (Stephen McCole) and temperate placating her aggrieved sister-in-law (Jamie Marie Leary), now she is both imbalanced – heavy hints of Lady Macbeth – and free to speak her mind.

The play contains masterful depictions of descents into madness, scenes of violence, and introduces characters with less than honourable intentions and the costumes and set design are nothing short of beautiful. Tolstoy’s melodramatic impulse means it can only end badly, but with the men variously feckless and detached and the women resistant and assertive, this is a sparky feminist cry for liberation. While she is outcast by society, driven mad, and maltreated by her peers, the audience waits in vain for a happy ending for the mother and her child.

From sexy ball gowns to stunning scenes of snowfall, this production dazzles its audience. Moreover, the production is choreographed to perfection with wonderful dances and scenes where the characters are artistically frozen in time.

Poignant, gripping, fast-paced and daring, this rollercoaster adaptation of the classic novel is driven with tremendous energy, bouncing from Petersburg party to rural estate with a pace as restless as Anna’s desires.

Following its tragic heroine as she discards bourgeois convention, this is an extravagant and memorable production, and depicts tragedy in order to encourage us to create an un-tragic world, one that’s less fateful and more hopeful. Based on the success of this play, it’s a vision that still inspires.

“Anna Karenina” is at Bristol Old Vic on June 7-24 at 7.30pm, with additional 2.30pm matinee shows on Thursday and Saturday (no shows on Sunday). Tickets are available at

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