Anna Karenina and Being Shakespeare (West End)
Anna Karenina & Being Shakespeare
The following two reviews are of productions I was fortunate enough to see in the West End by a combination of sheer luck; winning the tickets and being available at the last minute. The reason I’ve chosen to place them together is because they represent an increasing tradition in modern theatre of placing more emphasis on style over the integrity of the text.
Reviewed by: Darby
Venue: London Coliseum & Trafalgar Studios.
Warning; this review of Anna Karenina contains pretentious commentary, heavy sarcasm and shameless comparisons to the upcoming movie. Feel free to punch me for my presumption if you ever pass me on the street.
I chronicle my life through the great pieces of literature that have marked major landmarks and prove to me exactly why they have stood the test of time; 2011 was the year of Wuthering Heights and 2012 is Anna Karenina. First came the book, then the ballet and (what inspired me to write this review) the upcoming movie adaption by Joe Wright, starring his inexplicable muse, Keira Knightly. Anna represents every woman; she is a wife, a mother, a temptress, a lover, a heroine and a victim.
She is at both the Virgin Mary and Mary Magdalene. Anna is a respectable wife and mother who discovers life and love for the first time when she succumbs to an adulterous affair with Count Alexis Vronsky. Her passion leads her to make the ultimate sacrifice; the abandonment of her husband and child and an abomination in the eyes of the bourgeoisie Russian society which her husband, Karenin, represents. The ballet, choreographed and envisioned by Boris Eiffman, basically sticks to these themes to make it more ‘accessible for a modern audience.’ I imagine the film will do the same, judging from the trailer, and very sweetly give the purists something to rage about.
Once again Anna Karenina is thrown to the wolves; first as a product of gossip, and now in her incarnation as a mediocre representation. If her story tells us anything, there’s nothing the masses love more than a decent scapegoat united for their rage and disapproval. Anyway, with both of these representations, a very difficult question has risen- can Anna Karenina be successfully utilised on stage or in film without being compromised?
First of all, is there any living actress who could portray her, with all she has to offer? In my opinion, Greta Garbo’s 1935 incarnation was the closest it ever came. In terms of this production, I should say not. Ballet just isn’t the proper art format to explore this character, even if it offers very clear insight into the time she lives in; opera perhaps, but in terms of this production, I was disappointed.
As I have no experience reviewing ballet, I’ll stick to how the artists utilise the text. This production, as mentioned, places a heavy emphasis on the love triangle between Anna, Vronsky and Karenin; a dramatic irony once again as lesser characters such as Kitty, who is spurned by Vronsky in favour of Anna, are omitted. Poor Kitty. I feel so much outrage on her behalf as culture continuously undermines her. Mediocre characters will get their champion one day. I believe she got an anonymous shot in the trailer and maybe, if she’s lucky, she’ll get a line of dialogue.
So Eiffman has left himself very little to work with, which leaves room for a lot of repetition; the growing attraction between Anna and Vronsky, Karenin’s jealousy and endless examples of hypocritical and merciless Russian society. When the production dips its toes into actual experimental expressionism, it’s a relief to have a reason to pay attention, but even extended sequences such as Anna’s mad scene overstay their welcome. Given the focus on the three leads, the very large ensemble is mostly given semi-pointless repetitive ensemble numbers which take up valuable time.
Unfortunately, this production, whilst boasting technically outstanding dancers that you would expect in an internationally renowned ballet company, is completely soulless. Nina Zmievits is a veritable ice queen as Anna. Mostly she seems bored by the proceedings, she concentrates on her technique and the spectacular feats she is made to perform.
But this is the basis of all the characterisations; they are given one defining feature and they stick with it for the entire ballet. Anna may be cold and rigid at the start, and it is a worthy place to begin, but she gives the audience nothing- we don’t pity her, hate her or disapprove of her. The passions Anna ignites are some of the brightest in literature and the audience has nothing to work with.
The same goes for Karenin (Oleg Markov). However, even though he is marginally more interesting, he spends much of the piece as a spidery pantomime villain, as if he were playing Rothbart in Swan Lake. His choreography alludes to legitimate pain and pride at his wife’s betrayal. Oleg Gabyshev, as Vronsky, serves two functions that centre around his role as beefcake-to spend most of the production shirtless and do the climactic one-handed lift that appeared in all the publicity photos.
Anyway, this is a showcase of brilliant skills by a world renowned company and eminent choreographer but the talent would have been better served with different source material.
All the word’s a stage,
And all the men and women are merely players;
They have their exits and their entrances,
And one man in his time plays many parts…As You Like It.
The bard had it right but does anyone do it better than Simon Callow? Over his career, he has proved himself the king of the one man show; his repertoire is peppered with portrayals of great theatrical figures; Oscar Wilde, Charles Dickens and, finally, the works of William Shakespeare. In his working memoir, Being an Actor, Mr Callow lamented having The Mystery of Charles Dickens described as ‘two hours in the company of the English professor of your dreams.’
Unfortunately Being Shakespeare does absolutely nothing to change this assessment, with Jonathon Bates’ script currently reading like an introduction to the complete works and Simon Callow’s performance being the ultimate master class in Shakespearean acting. However, it is deservedly getting a Broadway transfer, allowing American audiences to sit in the company of the brilliant Mr Callow and savour his rich plummy voice as he delivers the absolute epitome of English Language; the prose of William Shakespeare.
From a theatrical perspective, this production coasts on Mr Callow’s brilliance and monumental grasp of Shakespeare’s text and characters but there’s very little exposition into Shakespeare himself; the title is, after all, Being Shakespeare.
All that is explored in the text is mostly the parts of his autobiography which are well known and are performed like a lecture from an Oxonian before hastily getting into what Mr Callow does best; the fantastic and eclectic range of characters that Shakespeare gifted his fellow thespians and, of course, the audiences.
From Bottom to Lear, Mercutio, Macbeth to Falstaff (if any of my darling readers are reading this between scenes or at rehearsal I apologise-or am I the only one who does that?) There’s very little analysis of the characters themselves or of the plays or any new depictions of Shakespeare himself, even though the programme offers a fantastic commentary on the conspiracy theories which I was devastated was not included in the script. It is simply the Life and Works of William Shakespeare marked with the famous seven ages of man’s speech from As You Like It to introduce the seven stages of Will’s life.
However, as promised, any that attended this performance would have learnt more about the art of acting and language from Mr Callow than they would be hard pressed to find anywhere else. My personal favourite, and I suspect is Mr Callow’s too, is his enactment of the mechanical opening scene from Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing every single one of them.
His boisterous and egotistical Bottom is a riot, as is his earthy Falstaff, who I was surprised didn’t get more stage time, considering the accolades he has received for playing the role in the past. It’s times like this when I wish they’d hurry up and invent the time turner. Playing brief representations of the part gives him opportunity to cheekily pass judgement in performance or the witty bon mot preceding them; this critic’s favourite is his psychotic and homoerotic interpretation of Mercutio. (Yes, we all know Mercutio is bi-polar and hopelessly in love with Romeo), but having it done by Simon Callow makes it all the more delicious-like seeing an inevitably mouth -watering pastry in the window or eating Croissants in France. You know it’s going to be good but it’s so much better when done by the crème de le crème.
This segues into his world-weary Mac (I’m giving you fair warning now theatre people) Beth which induces a small lump in the throat, such is the power of this performer that you feel you know all there is to know about a character on the basis of one speech.
One small gripe. In a production like this, costume is of absolutely no importance and I suspect Mr Callow just performs in his street clothes and a spackle of make-up, but I couldn’t help being distracted and my style feathers ruffled by having him appear in completely clashing pants and blazer. Mr Callow (why it isn’t Sir Callow by now I have no idea-I may just have to fly to New York and knight him myself so Wikipedia can say he was knighted by a queen; forgive my self-indulgence).
Tom Cairns uses minimal design and direction. Wisely so, because the production is all about Sir Callow, though there are some nice little touches that he uses to remind the audience of his efforts. Having a storm and something break as the lights changed at the mention of Macbeth was a nice touch.
So the purpose of playing is personified by one of the great theatrical giants of our generation and it was my privilege to witness it but, in conclusion, 3 stars for a great performance and disappointment of a lacklustre script. Then again, poor Mr Cairns is working against Shakespeare himself, not themselves, and if it has one success, it put aside any doubts I had of this individual’s genius.