Throughout my undergraduate degree in English, I was extremely interested in adaptation studies. The concept of the updating and altering that is an inherent aspect of adaption has always fascinated me. I have usually focused on novel to screen or stage to screen adaptations, as these are obviously the most common form of adaption. However, on Tuesday the 10th of January, I went to Dublin to see the Abbey Theatre’s production of Anna Karenina, Marina Carr’s new version of the famous Tolstoy novel for the stage, with Lisa Dwan as the titular character. Admittedly, I didn’t really know what to expect: Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is my favourite novel, and I was slightly apprehensive regarding the abbreviation of the 800 page epic to a three and a half hour stage play. I need not have wasted my time on such trepidation. Not only did the three and a half hours fly by, but the play also managed to include some of the novel’s subplots to create a panorama of Russian society. This post will act as both a review of the play, as well as an examination of the changes made to the novel in order to stage the story of Anna Karenina for an Irish audience.

Sarah Bacon is the set and costume designer of the play, and opts for the juxtaposition of sparse set design with lavish costumes. Although the play is set in the opulence of 19th century Russia, the set design is bare but innovative. A piano, chandelier and red velvet curtains are a constant, and are utilised to great dramatic effect. As Sara Keating, writing for the Irish Times, points out, the piano is used to pierce moments of “emotional intensity” with music, and the curtains are moved and used to emphasise transition. The costumes are suitably sumptuous and evocative of upper class Russia, with plenty of costume changes.

Lavish costumes on a minimalist stage in Anna Karenina [Credit: Abbey Theatre]
Carr’s play is an ensemble piece, and the entire cast is fantastic, from Rory Fleck-Byrne’s forceful Count Vronsky to Nick Dunning’s obnoxious Prince Sherbatsky. The play is, however, anchored by Lisa Dwan’s intense central performance as the woman ostracised from society because of her extra-marital affair with Count Vronsky. Dwan is perhaps best known for her visceral one-woman interpretations of the work of Samuel Beckett, including Not I, Footfalls, and No’s Knife, and it was interesting to see her play something different. Her Anna is complexly paradoxical: at once headstrong, fragile, independent, dependent, confident, insecure, and, when threatening her lover with vengeance, just plain terrifying. The character of Anna is sympathetic in the novel as well, but through Dwan’s performance, the audience is drawn into the difficult decisions the protagonist has to face, and the consequences she must live with. In fact, the most heartbreaking scene in the play is the mortifying moment when Dwan’s Anna is faced with her new status as a social pariah at the opera. Ruth McGill is also worth a mention as she brings some comic relief to the piece as Anna’s sister-in-law Dolly, eternally pregnant and frazzled, destined to forever put up with her husband Stiva’s philandering ways.

Lisa Dwan as the vilified heroine Anna [Credit: Abbey Theatre]
Omissions and additions are a necessary aspect of adaptation. Carr keeps the main threads of the novel, such as the love affair between Anna and Vronsky, Levin’s pursuit of Kitty, and even includes the subplot of Levin’s brother Nikolai. Carr’s level of faithfulness to the novel is indicated in the first scene. As is well-known, Tolstoy’s novel opens with the line ” all happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Tolstoy 1). This line is one of the most famous openers in literature and is also unexpectedly included in Carr’s play, as a chorus of Dolly and Stiva’s children sing: “all happy families are the same. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way” (Carr 13).

Dolly and Stiva’s posse of offspring perform Tolstoy’s famous       opening line [Credit: Abbey Theatre]
There are, however, some welcome changes. The most notable alteration to the novel is the injection of Irish humour into a story set in Tsarist Russia. Although the bizarre mix of Irish colloquialisms and Russian society may seem absurd, the combination is effective in uplifting a tragic morality tale, and did go down very well with the audience. For example, Stiva greets Levin’s housekeeper with the phrase “how are you, me old petal”, a phrase not often heard in a Tolstoy novel, but one that works very well in an Irish context (Carr 67). Carr’s adaptation can also be seen as possessing more feminist undertones than the source material. This is clear as the play includes satirical dinner conversations regarding the “woman question”, an inclusion that definitely resonates with a post-US Election audience, as Prince Sherbatsky asks his wife “Are you fit for power?” (Carr 95). Indeed, Carr’s play works best when it depicts the vast differences between the rights of men and that of women in 19th century Russia. This is at its most obvious in the depiction of the affair between Anna and Vronsky. If Vronsky has an affair with Anna, it is considered a “feather in a young man’s cap” (Carr 71). Anna’s hopelessly unfaithful brother Stiva is pretty much left to his own devices as far as society is concerned, whereas Anna’s affair leads to unhappiness, condemnation, and, ultimately, death.

Anna sacrifices everything for her affair with Vronsky [Credit: Abbey Theatre]
Marina Carr’s adaption of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina is in the Abbey until the 28th of January and is well worth a look to see for yourself how Carr’s words and Dwan’s performance together form a new force to be reckoned with in Irish theatre.

Works Cited:

Title Image: Abbey Theatre

Carr, Marina. Anna Karenina: Adapted for the stage from the novel by Leo Tolstoy. London: Faber and Faber, 2016. Print.

Keating, Sara. “Anna Karenina review: A riveting 3½ hours of Tolstoy”. The Irish Times, 14 December 2016,

Tolstoy, Leo. Anna Karenina. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. London: Penguin Classics, 2006. Print.