There have been a hell of a lot of plays about Russia this term. We had Collaborators, all about Stalin, at the Pilch. Then there’s The Optimists, which is out this week at the Burton Taylor, featuring a farcical communist plot. The White Guard, a play about the Ukranian civil war will be on at the tiny Albion Beatnik Bookstore in sixth week. And at the time of writing, in fifth week, Anna Karenina, a new musical based on the book by Tolstoy, is on at the O’Reilly theatre.
Anna Karenina is slightly unique for the Oxford drama scene because it has been written entirely by one of our own – a student, appropriately studying Russian and French. Maria Shepard is a second year at New college, who has worked on writing the musical for over a year, after being inspired by reading Anna Karenina in the original Russian for her Oxford interview. Shepard ambitiously aimed to condense the hefty classic novel for the stage. It works. The music is beautiful and interesting, and the libretto equally good, managing to sensitively and believably capture many of the book’s dominant themes such as love and marriage, the subjugation of women to society’s expectations, and scandal in the public eye. The show is three hours long, which is a bit of a marathon, but it is still clear that Shepard definitely had her eye on the clock when she wrote it, as she trims the story down, cutting the fat that wouldn’t translate well onto the stage. For example, Levin’s obsession with the agricultural economy and the hot debate between European and Russian farming methods thankfully only gets a line or two in the show, and Kitty and Levin’s extremely happy (but boring) union doesn’t get much of a look-in, once the pair are married.
“The show is three hours long, which is a bit of a marathon”
For those of us who haven’t read Tolstoy in original Russian, Anna Karenina is the story of Anna, an aristocrat in 19th century Russia, who has a passionate affair with Count Alexei Vronksy, to escape to the boredom of her robotic and emotionally empty husband, Count Karenin. However, with her newfound love comes stigma, and both her husband and aristocratic society reject her when Anna falls pregnant and the affair becomes obvious to all. Isolated by her former friends, and facing the choice between her beloved son by Karenin, or her lover, she begins to fall into depression and despair.
The cast of Anna Karenina are excellent. Amelia Gabriel as the lead was faultless. Her singing is phenomenal, and she manages even the most difficult and moving moments of the play with real conviction, making the tragic descent of the character into near-madness incredibly believable. Henry Jacobs likewise, is brilliantly cast as Count Karenin, and brings real sincerity and depth to a character who could easily be a two-dimensional boring husband. Other honourable mentions really ought to go to Susannah Hardwick for her stunning solo aria in the song The Opera and Ellie Mae Macdonald, whose wonderfully bitchy and obnoxious Countess Lydia made me grit my teeth with irritation (at the character, not the acting).
“The cast of Anna Karenina are excellent.”
The costumes of the play are incredibly impressive, and seem to be where most of the production budget has gone as the they far outshine the disappointingly bare and functional set. The beautiful ladies’ gowns, in tasteful emerald, maroon and canary in flowing silk and ruched material are set in notably stark contrast with the country peasants’ white linen shirts and dark trousers, hinting at another theme of the novel which doesn’t entirely make it into the musical – the disparity between poor Russia and rich Russia. First published in 1878, only a few decades before the Russian revolution, Tolstoy’s novel shows us two entirely different societies, with entirely different values, within the same country. In the musical, these ideas are condensed, and embodied by the humble (and adorably romantic) landowner, Levin, who recognises the simple truth of the matter: “What [society] thinks is important and what is really important are different things”. The implication is that part of Anna’s plight is her good fortune to be wealthy – her freedom is limited not only by her womanhood, but by her position in a society which hypocritically condemns her affair, not because adultery is unacceptable in itself (far from it!) but because public scandal cannot be condoned.
What’s most amazing about Anna Karenina is that you can chronicle this musical all the way from its roots as a spark of an idea while the composer was applying to the university, to being written whilst she was here. After that, assembling an excellent cast and orchestra from the array of musical and acting talent that Oxford students have to offer. Then getting some amazing marketing (have you seen how gorgeous the posters are?), and all the way to being put on in one of the best college theatres in Oxford in a near sold-out run. All this is the work of dedicated and creative students, and it just goes to show how high the standard is for drama at Oxford.
Anna Karenina is on in the O’Reilly theatre until the 18th of February.