Maria Shepard’s ambition in this project should absolutely be commended: to compose a musical based on a novel not only so well-loved, but that exists on such an epic scale, could only have been done with a deep love, and it was clear that this was the case. However, despite moments of brilliance, Anna Karenina failed to be the showstopper ‘one of the greatest novels ever written’ deserves.
Fitting the expanse of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina into a three hour musical is no mean feat. A novel where much of its artistry is rooted in the subtleties and the aching of slow passing time is indeed impossible to transfer completely to the stage. There were therefore elements of the plot that were too squashed – Anna fell in love with Vronsky within minutes, and spent the second half jumping from saying goodbye to her son, to sadness, to morphine addiction, to suicide, all in consecutive scenes. The orchestration was overly simplified, with a plodding bassoon as a constant accompaniment to basic piano chords and melodic strings. The band themselves were also somewhat out of tune, but this can of course be blamed on opening night. Shepard seemed to be trying at points to rush the audience through Tolstoy’s many plotlines, forgetting that if all six are going on at once then we cannot hear any of them.
Despite this, a number of the leads gave stunning performances. Eoghan McNeils was a charming and sympathetic Stiva Oblonsky. Ellie Mae Macdonald and Caitlin Kelly were brilliant as Countess Lydia and Princess Betsy respectively, bouncing off each other beautifully. But it was the heroine, Amelia Gabriel, who really shone as Anna – she was vivacious and charismatic, impossible to look away from when onstage. She could almost be criticised for being too loveable; the audience were immediately on her side, and it was hard to lose faith with her over the course of the show. Gabriel had a hard job, working against a background of flattened characters, and with a bizarrely wholesome script – even her decision to choose Vronsky over her son didn’t demonise her.
Indeed, this wholesomeness is a criticism of the whole piece. Anna Karenina is ultimately a novel about adultery, yet moments of seduction were few and far between. Even in ‘As The Night Gets Darker’, the song in which Anna and Vronsky consummate their relationship, the actors seemed awkward with each other. In the direction in general, bustling scenes such as in St Petersburg and at balls were well-done: the company were choreographed intelligently and executed their steps with grace. However, there were many overly static moments in which the company was uncomfortably still – in large set pieces in particular, there was almost no movement other than awkward shuffling of feet. The tone was incoherent and confusing, not helped by an obstructive set and prolonged blackouts between every scene: as soon as we got close to feeling an emotion, the lights were cut – but not quite enough for us to not see every set change as it took place. One of the book’s most iconic scenes, Anna’s suicide, was a real anti-climax, Gabriel simply stepping off the stage into an orange light.
Overall, while it had moments of spark, Shepard’s Anna Karenina had neither enough opulence nor passion to serve as an effective adaptation. Tolstoy said, on Anna Karenina, that the process of putting thoughts into words ‘degrades’ them – and even the words he gave are merely impressions. In trying to solidify these impressions, and in doing so simplifying them, Shepard’s Anna Karenina misses its mark.