There have been many adaptations of Tolstoy’s works in recent years, from the BBC’s recent adaptation of War and Peace to Tom Stoppard’s cinematic interpretation of Anna Karenina.
While any form of adaptation has its own risks, working with such established classics puts an even greater pressure upon the adapters to ensure than nothing is lost in translation.
Arrows and Traps are a small, London based, theatre company who have previously adapted the Shakespeare plays Taming of the Shrew and Titus Andronicus to great effect.
Moving away from English classics, they are currently tackling Helen Edmundson’s adaptation of Anna Karenina, Tolstoy’s epic tale of passion, faith and fidelity to rave reviews.
I spoke with Director Ross McGregor about the differences between Shakespeare and Tolstoy, and the insight his work gives into the mindset of the time.
When asked about the challenges of adapting Tolstoy to the stage, Ross said: “It is very different, as this is our first non-shakespeare production. In the past, I’ve adapted the texts myself and re-invented Shakespeare to suit our needs.
“With this, Helen Edmundson adapted the script in the 1990’s so that part was done for us, and it’s a very specific text, with clear descriptions of how it should be staged.
In a way, our Shakespeare shows have always been about finding how to present the text in a new way, while this has been about finding a way to stay true to the novel. People want to see their favourite book done right, and I want to give them that.”
Like similar novels of the time, Anna Karenina offers a glimpse into a time which is long lost to living memory, and what it can teach us about the world we live in today.
Ross commented on how, much like British literature of the same period, Tolstoy shows both how much we have achieved yet how little we have changed, he said: “It shows us how far we’ve come, though it’s lovely to see the neuroses and anxieties that plagued us in 1870 still plague us today.”
In terms of the “Russian-ness” of it, I think it shows how their pride of their homeland has remained the same, something we English struggle with I think.
It shows who passionate they were in their reputations, their love lives, and their relationship with God. Faith, or the lack of it, is one of the principal concerns of the novel.
Ross also spoke about how Anna Karenina and other works of Russian literature highlight the social differences between Russia and more western nations, saying: “The culture seems more ingrained, religion is more mainstream and orthodox.
“Russian society deals in absolutes, there are no grey areas of morality, you’re either right or wrong, loved or exiled.
“There isn’t so much politeness or etiquette, they don’t view expressions of emotion in men as signs of weakness.
“Russians seem more honest in expressing themselves. Austen is filled with hypocrisy and satire, whereas Tolstoy isn’t afraid to tackle the storm of emotion head on, screaming into the wind.”
At a time where Russia is making headlines for somewhat unsavoury reasons, there has also been upsurge in interest in Russian literature and theatre such as the BBC’s recent adaptation of War and Peace.
When asked about this, Ross said, “Perhaps there’s a nostalgia there, for a simpler time. Russia’s influence on the world seems quite threatening at points. It’s nicer to think of ballrooms and cavalry officers and banquets, than air strikes and tanks.”
While the bygone era offered by Tolstoy’s work may be more comforting than the one we live in today, as Ross said earlier, the fears that plague us then are just as present now.
Anna Karenina is currently running at the Jack Studio Theatre in Brockley, North London, until April 2nd.
All photos courtesy of Davor Torvarlaza