The greats of Russian literature aren’t exactly known for getting straight to the point. In Anna Karenina or Poor People, Bosnian director Oliver Frljić mashes up Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky in a three-hour crossover inspired – or provoked? – by the titular novels. While Tolstoy’s epic receives more stage time during the overlong first act, the affairs of Russia’s elite are occasionally interrupted by scenes from Dostoevsky’s lesser-known Poor People in a contrasting stage universe that oscillates between rags and riches. Characters are wheeled down with wagons on railway tracks that loom into the audience as they dismiss or devour bread – a heavy-handed metaphor for wealth – and deliver a strange combination of emotional extremes and worldly detachment that only the Russian canon could provide. During the intermission, theatregoers may wonder why the play wasn’t called “Anna Karenina and Poor People”, given the symbiotic staging of the two. But the second act swerves off-piste from the source material, and the characters confront each other in an intersectional class conflict as Dostoevsky’s impoverished heroine asserts that the (male) bourgeoisie behind Anna Karenina must make way for the art of the underclass. What follows is 100 percent pure Frljić, as the wealthy men of the evening are summarily executed by an emancipated band of women. Frljić offers a scathing reading of two classics, granting their oppressed figures agency. He just takes a while to get there.
Anna Karenina or Poor People | Directed by Oliver Frljić. Maxim Gorki Theater, Mitte. Oct 9, 17, 19:30 (with English surtitles).