Maria Shepard’s musical adaptation of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina began as a distant dream. She began writing the songs two years ago, after reading the classic Russian novel for her Oxford interview. Over dinner at a ball, a vision began to form as her friend James Tibbles persuaded her it would be possible to bring the show to life on an Oxford stage.
Maria admits that it’s been “a long process,” but it’s clear that it’s been an exciting one, too. Now taking on the role of musical director, Maria is joined by co-directors James and Suzy Cripps. As we discuss the production, the evidence of the trio’s excitement is visible on their faces.
The team have gone to great lengths to create this original musical. As well as writing the music, Maria retranslated the original book, which James and Suzy used to develop the script. After casting in November, the script was reworked further as they took inspiration from their cast.
The team takes quite a bit of license with the story. Comic elements—such as the friendship between characters Lydia and Betsy—are extended to avoid an overly melodramatic and sentimental retelling of the story. There is also a focus on character psychology, especially in Anna’s case, where her fear of being watched taps into the very modern preoccupation with surveillance. “The claustrophobia comes through in the ensemble numbers,” the directors explain. In the course of over 20 musical numbers, the ensemble characters serve almost as a Greek chorus which frames Anna’s story.
Whilst this complex love story is incredibly marketable, it was undeniably difficult to adapt. I ask the team what we should expect from this nuanced retelling, and their answer is simple: “Russian decadence”. The O’Reilly will be transformed into a large palace, with the set design is structured around grandeur, and a live orchestra accompanying the actors from the balcony. We’re also in for some moving performances—the directors are thrilled with the way their cast have responded to their project, with Amelia Gabriel and Henry Jacobs reinterpreting the roles of Anna and Karenin respectively, aiming to make them more relatable to a modern audience.
The directors tell me that this is the most exciting production they have ever worked on: “We spend so much time after rehearsal talking about how much we love the project,” Suzy says. Although it’s the first time James and Suzy have worked together, they call it an “organic partnership,” and want to take it further in future.
Some sympathy for Anna, but mostly a feeling of catharsis, is what they want the audience to leave with. “We want people coming out not quite sure how to feel,” James explains. Ultimately, it will be a very intense story balanced by music and comic relief. I’d say this remarkably original take on a classic story is one you don’t want to miss.