Tolstoy is heavy material, and Anna Karenina is Weighty with a capital W, both in volume and impact. It is a romantic tragedy that burgeons amid a sprawling social commentary on the realities of high society, passion, truth, hypocrisy, the relationship between humanity and nature, and perhaps fundamentally ‘unhappiness’ (which features in the opening line of the novel).
Naturally then, when I received a message from a friend asking if I’d be interested in auditioning, it felt like a very different kettle of fish from the season of comedies I had just finished. Talking with director Jane-Eve Straughton about the project over the phone, I couldn’t help but be swept up by her enthusiasm and the team she’d assembled.
I was thrilled to be offered the part, not least because we had an extraordinary script to work with. Helen Edmundson’s “Anna Karenina” has been praised as one of the best adaptations of a novel for the stage as has ever been seen. It puts a premium on brevity while illustrating the many themes in a series of crystallized encounters, behaving almost as courtroom exhibits in the cross-examination that drives the play, between the central characters Anna (Tui Mclean) and Levin (William Baltyn). Over the course of the story, they compete for everything: whose story it is, who is more unhappy, and for the other’s approval and affection. Levin is consumed by a search to find the right way to live, while Anna seeks to live truthfully in a world smothered beneath social contrivance.
A curse on both their houses was my character, Alexei Vronsky. At the start of the play he is a serial spanner in the works, casually courting Princess Kitty (Steph Urquhart) and scuppering Levin’s attempts to propose to her, only to abandon her upon becoming besotted with Anna. This marks a change in him. For all his cavalier bravado as a captain, his love for Anna is true, and it is perhaps this truth more than anything that draws her into an affair.
It was a tremendous challenge to play so many isolated snippets while maintaining a through-line for the character. As was the case with everyone orbiting the central two, so much character development takes place off stage. Weeks and months pass between vignettes, some of which were devised as subconscious, dream-like sequences where multiple timelines play out simultaneously. Vronsky starts the play completely focussed on his career in the army (with a penchant for scandalous dalliances with society women), becoming a civilian artist infatuated by the love of his life, to end as a guilt-ridden shell broken by a toxic relationship and the hardships of life outside the military. All prefigured in subtle moments in Act I, again testament to Edmundson’s script.
The play ran for an all-too-brief six nights at the Landor Theatre, Clapham, and we were both surprised and delighted with the feedback we received from audiences, as well as people in the industry. There was also a good review, and it was hailed as “the best show you’ve ever been in” (by my dad). All in all, there was an outpouring of relief, appreciation and exhaustion from all who worked on the show over its short, intense rehearsal period. Not only did I make my London debut, but a lot of great friends in the process.