In this innovative production of Leo Tolstoy’s timeless story of love, loss and sacrifice, “Anna Karenina”, the Xameleon Theatre Company fully lives up to its name. An all-female crew of four takes on thirteen different characters, most of which are men. Chameleon-like, the actors slip from one role into the other, taking the audience on a wild ride about perceptions of gender, stereotypes and social critique.
At the back of the stage two coat stands hold the jackets, beards and masks the actors use to transform into different characters. Effortlessly they change characters, from woman to man to child, using their bodies, posture and voices, playing with our (un-)conscious biases and preconceptions to bring different personalities alive.
We’re presented with Alexei Karenin, whose bushy grey eyebrows, annoying high-pitched voice and nasal sounds remind us of a strict and disapproving headmaster. His rival, Alexei Vronsky, strikes us with a low masculine voice, a moustache and testosterone-fuelled body language. Another memorable character is Anna’s brother Stiva Oblonsky, a hedonist and lover of beautiful things, whose relaxed gestures and melodic way of speaking prompt ‘Italian stallion’ stereotypes.
Playing with the audience’s expectations and assumptions of masculinity and femininity, director Dmitry Turchaninov puts questions of gender identity centre stage. By doing so, he brings the search for identity and purpose, which is so predominant in Tolstoy’s novel, to the surface and focuses in on social realities in the battle between the sexes.
Anna’s sister in law, Dolly, struggles with her husband’s indiscretions, socially and sexually, while she’s confined to a life of motherhood. ‘Do you know, Anna, my youth and my beauty are gone. Taken by whom? By him and his children.’ All the while, Stiva is conflicted by his own wants and insecurities. He appreciates his home, his children and Dolly, but doesn’t seem to be capable of being a loving and respectful husband.
His good friend Konstantin Levin on the other hand is so obsessed with finding love that he almost misses his chance of happiness with the much younger Kitty, who has her heart broken by Vronsky before recognising her deep connection with Levin. Their relationship grows steadily over time, defined by ups and downs which they consciously work to overcome.
By contrast, Anna’s affair with Vronsky demands sacrifice. Anna’s torn between her duties as a wife and her individual needs. Her husband’s more concerned about his own position and the impact Anna’s affair has on his status than about losing his wife. He turns to religion as his moral compass, denies Anna a divorce and uses their son as a bargaining chip.
Anna’s pregnancy highlights the risk women take when entertaining relations outside of wedlock. Shunned as an adulteress, a woman willing to give up her own child to pursue her sexual desires, she’s excluded from the privileged social life she once enjoyed. Her social suicide long precipitates her physical death. Vronsky, on the other hand, only sacrifices a promotion and loses the favour of a handful of people. His social position, however, is solid.
These social constraints and institutions break the bond between Anna and Alexei. Anna’s jealous and struck by the injustice and unfairness of predominant social standards. For him, the world keeps spinning, for Anna, it’s become a sad and painful place.
Throughout the play, Anna’s portrayed by different actors, each playing her at different stages of her life: the highly regarded wife of a Russian bureaucrat, the woman falling victim to her passions, the freethinker fighting for her place and purpose in life, the adulteress and social outcast.
In a brilliant final act, the four actors then bring Anna’s contradicting and ever-darkening train of thoughts to life – ultimately ending in silence. In this fleeting moment, Anna’s primary goal isn’t to run away, but to punish. Her suicide’s a personal vendetta against Alexei, who has taken everything from her and was unable to fill the void he left behind. In the end, the characters are all but players in the game we call love. It’s rough, but we still keep on playing.