If Leo Tolstoy could see John Clifford's adaptation of his Anna Karenina, he might be surprised by which characters and what elements Clifford has considered important, and what he has ruthlessly discarded. Anyone who has read this epic novel has his or her own favourites, of course, and will surely sympathise with the almost impossible task Clifford faced. Tolstoy might also be puzzled, given the action's setting in 1870s Russia, that the couple torn apart by adultery has mysteriously turned from Oblonsky into the McBlonsky family, the play given a decidedly Scottish (and in one case Welsh) slant by its nine-strong line-up.
The versatile, hard-working cast frames the play in two tableaux, as though captured on the jacket of a book between whose covers we seem to be flicking through pages quickly and rather randomly. If at times it feels as if we are doing little more than catching glimpses of miscellaneous episodes in an upmarket soap opera, this is not to suggest that Clifford loses the thread of Tolstoy's narrative. Far from it, for - under Muriel Romanes' well-paced, resourceful direction - what emerges, with gleaming clarity, is the essence of what Tolstoy was trying to express. Frustrations with the old-fashioned mores governing society, the unpredictability of relationships and the stultifying opposition to progress are cogently conveyed in Clifford's intelligent and detailed version.
The elegant simplicity of the production is established in Francis O'Connor's brilliantly designed set - a series of simple, interlocking wooden partitions whose cunningly concealed doors and windows open on to a birch forest shimmering coldly in the silvery moonlight. Within these claustrophobic walls, people's lives are confined, chewed over and crushed; their relationships alternately scrutinised, agonised over and ultimately endured. Characters introduce themselves to us, like cold-callers; it may be a naive device, but it's vital, given the amount of doubling here. The patter is sharp and the most painful situations are truthfully observed in dialogue that penetrates to the heart of the tragic and comic aspects of the saga.
As Anna, Raquel Cassidy is compelling, but it is Louise Collins's Kitty who tugs at our heartstrings. She is hopelessly ill-prepared to lead any independent sort of life. Not that the men are much better at this game of existence. That Liam Brennan's astutely observed Levin and Paul Blair's sleazy Oblonsky find any common ground is hard to believe. Jamie Lee's Vronsky, quite the assured military man and slightly slippery conqueror of trophy mistresses, might have benefited from an added degree of complexity to his character. Yet his shallowness befits Anna's handsome lover who is unable to share responsibility for the devastating effect their immoral relationship has on Anna's life.
Where Romanes succeeds best is at bringing a degree of intimacy to the private passions and public morality of Clifford's snapshots of Tolstoy's characters. But the welding of Kitty's life-giving moment with Anna's life-ebbing one detracts from the latter. Sheffield's Crucible, for whom Clifford's adaptation was intended, must be kicking itself for an opportunity missed.
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