This is a production that gives new meaning to the phrase "going through the motions". The text demands, and director Nancy Meckler delivers, a continual sense of movement, with one scene flowing into the next, and invisibly circumscribed acting areas being formed, then breached, with cinematic elegance. Time and place are suggested by the lighting, the relative positioning of the eight actors and their handling of a few key props - some tatty old leather suitcases and wooden chairs. The suitcases spill unlikely contents (grain, say, or dry ice), while the chairs are employed to represent anything from ball-dresses, slung round the waist, to the blunt instrument - disapproval - that hypocritical St Petersburg opera goers use to crush the adulterous Anna.
The ease with which the ensemble strides through its stylised paces in simple period kit conveys a mechanical momentum towards tragedy without ever seeming a tired retread. Edmundson's unflorid script has an evergreen forcefulness. By interweaving the novel's two main narrative threads via tit-for-tat storytelling between the unhappily married Anna and the idealistic, unfulfilled landowner Levin, she achieves much more than the compression of an 850-page epic into three hours' viewing.
"Where are you now?" Anna and Levin repeatedly ask each other, as they bear witness to extracts from a domestic drama that seems to counterpoint their own. Anna's affair with Count Vronsky, and her rejection of the conventional life, places her in a social and spiritual limbo that Levin himself encountered in Moscow and against which he struggles, as he buries himself in agriculture and yearns for young Princess Kitty Shcherbatsky.
In the novel, Anna and Levin only meet towards the end, when the latter is charmed by the woman he expected to despise. In the play, Levin wrestles with this contrary impulse throughout: "Why are our stories bound together? I can't bear to be near you!" he shouts, when Anna decides to abandon her son in order to nest with Vronsky in Venice. The remarks, accusations and consolations exchanged between the two generate a complex pathos. They have to face their fates alone, but there is a palpable sense of what might have been.
"No sooner had he [Levin] gone than she ceased to think of him," is Anna's response to that first meeting in the novel. If there is a downside to the chemistry between Teresa Banham's Anna, whose composure cracks electrifyingly at the end, and Richard Hope's bear-like Levin (both reprising their roles), it is that this Anna is lent likeability by association. The passion between her and Vronksy (Derek Riddell has the requisite intensity and high-cheekbones) is relatively neutral by comparison, expressing itself most virulently during its death-rattle. But these are minor quibbles. Edmundson's Anna Karenina remains an outstanding example of a novel adaptation that succeeds on its own theatrical terms.
It's welcome back anytime.
Lyric Hammersmith, London (0181-741 2311) To 10 Oct