Staging and Screening Anna Karenina

Armin Petras’ production at the Volkstheater meets Joe Wright’s 2012 adaptation for film

Anna Karenina

Anna, played by Keira Knightley in Joe Wright’s film, becomes ever more aware of the inescapable social ties that bind her | Photo: Universal Pictures

First published in 1887, the story of Anna Karenina still feels modern. Even 125 years later, Leo Tolstoy’s novel of stifled love in the perfumed salons of 19th century aristocratic Russia remain gripping. This social tapestry of culture and character woven together, meticulously unveiling all characters through a shifting of voice and perspective, has retained its fully deserved place in the canon of world literature.

This is the story of the aristocratic Anna, married to the minister Alexei Karenin. Having a passionate affair with Count Vronsky, she is destroyed by the oppressive rules of a patriarchal society, in which women have few rights and fewer choices. It is also the parallel stories of other couples, of Levin, a rich landowner, and his adored Kitty, and of the unhappy marriage between Anna’s brother Stiva Oblonsky and his wife Dolly. Tolstoy takes on immortal themes like the corruptive culture of the city and the honourable simplicity of rural life. He depicts the quest for true love and fulfilment, showing the dramatic downfall of Anna Karenina, contrasted with the happiness of Kitty and Levin.

Tolstoy’s story of an impossible love and its unravelling has long been a favourite for adaptation to other media. Viennese audiences can now see it transformed on both stage and screen: in a powerful current production by German director Armin Petras at the Volkstheater through February, and in Joe Wright’s stunning new film currently playing at Vienna’s cinemas.

Staging love’s tale 

Armin Petras, director of the famed Maxim Gorki Theatre in Berlin, centres his interpretation of Anna Karenina on the element of love. He focuses on the development of the three couples: Stiva & Dasha, Anna & Vronsky and finally Levin & Kitty. It is a move away from simply re-telling the story towards what makes the novel immortal: An examination of the nature of love itself in the dramatic story of Anna Karenina.

He begins with the stage, fully painted in a deep Bordeaux-red, love’s signature hue. The space narrows to the back, growing smaller. There are no props; the focus is on the actors’ performances.

The movement is fast, packed with nervous energy, in which the pairs dance towards their respective ends and the action on stage is interwoven with narration: A character will turn to the audience to relate background and it is a testament to the skill of the direction that this doesn’t interrupt the flow.

In her final monologue, Martina Stilp as Anna Karenina is shaken with despair before throwing herself under the train. In this moment, she comes face to face with the truth of her own nature, “I myself don’t know me,” she pleads, “I only know what I want, and even that changes hourly, daily…” Her last words end in a final search for an answer: “Love is…”, she tries, “love is…”, repeated once and then again. She is unable to complete the sentence. Throughout the play, the unwritten rules slowly push Anna to the edge. Petras’ characters refer to this closed society as “them”, destroying Alexei Karenin (Michael Wenninger) by dismissing him and exiling Anna and Vronsky (Roman Schmeltzer) from the social round that had been their life. Unable to bear the isolation, Anna flees from an evening at the opera shattered because she has been called a whore. She resorts to morphine and is driven mad.

At Kitty and Levin’s wedding, an unusually lucid Stiva turns to face the audience, realising “that the way this world is, one could only tear it to pieces. But knowing that we lack the strength to do so, we need the inebriation.”


Tragedy in opulence

The real surprise was Joe Wright’s film. The British director goes against the common wisdom that movie adaptations mutilate the novels on which they are based, and delivers a wonderful homage to the original. This is a film of epic pictures, plunging the audience into the world of 19th century Russian elite, whose effusive lust for luxury is translated with sumptuous imagery.

At times, vision takes over, as when Levin (Domhmall Gleeson) wakes up on a haystack to the sound of a carriage crossing: It’s early morning; the sun rises, faintly shining through fog. Millions of beads speckle the grass, breaking the cautious light to glisten like fiery gems. Looking at Kitty, leaning out of the carriage-window, Levin realises how much he still loves her. The expression on his face says more than words could. One comment overheard: “I was so lost in that world that realising it was just a movie was like waking up from a dream.”

With brilliant camera work, Wright creates image systems: The film takes place on a dusty and forgotten stage, with the backstage machinery transformed into streets and apartments of Moscow and its poor citizens. Thus the pictures don’t change abruptly, but evolve, alongside the characters and their fates.

In another effective scene, we see Anna (Keira Knightley) lying on her bed, believing she’s going to die after the birth of her illegitimate daughter. Her eyes are lifeless, her face pale, surrounded by dark, brittle hair. The colours, light and tone of the character are tangible.

Petras’ adaptation dresses Anna’s story in lyrical language, full of tragedy and reflection, while leaving the viewer at a distance. Dialogue is combined with large gestures, as in their first conversation, Anna and Vronsky sit, turned away from each other in the corners of the stage.

Wright’s film dissolves into the past, laviciously staged in dreamlike pictures, as in the dance of Anna and Vronsky at the ball, drawn into their spins and turns, moved by the flowing choreography. As this symbolic proof of love gains speed, Anna and Vronsky forget the world around them as their arms slide around each other in an embrace.

See the play, Anna Karenina:
7, 8, 11, 13, 16, 17, 20, 23 Feb., and additional dates in March
7., Neustiftgasse 1
(01) 52 111 0

See the film, Anna Karenina, at various theatres in Vienna in February. Visit for showtimes

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