THEATRE Far from the Madding Crowd Northcott Theatre, Exeter
"May your life be like that of a Hardy character" - this must surely be one of the worst curses imaginable. With a dispassionate sense for the dramatic and an almost sadistic tendency to place obstacles in his characters' paths, Thomas Hardy is not kind to his creations. In Far from the Madding Crowd, Gabriel Oak sees his life ruined in the flick of a pen as an overzealous sheepdog herds his flock over a precipice, and poor Fanny Robin misses out on matrimonial bliss simply by turning up at the wrong church for her wedding. A Wessex inhabitant's lot is usually not a happy one.

On the fringes of Hardy Country, in the city that he rechristened Exonbury, the Northcott Theatre Company have set about adapting Madding Crowd for the stage. And as if taking a lead from the author, they have provided themselves with an obstacle that, to the humble reader, may seem virtually insurmountable: to present this sweeping tale of rural passion with only four actors and a single set. As sometimes happens, even in Hardy's novels, they triumph in the face of this self-imposed adversity.

Obviously there is a certain amount of condensation involved when converting 160,000 words of highly textured text into a two-hour stage play, but the essence of Hardy's story, the pastoral atmosphere, some of the finer pieces of writing and the drama of Bathsheba Everdene's romantic trials and tribulations are preserved. They even manage to portray the aforementioned mass ovine suicide leap.

The fact that a bare set of raked stage, fences and boxes can carry the viewer so intensely into the mind pictures lovingly painted by Hardy is, above all, a testament to the skill of the actors. While it can be remarked that Lisa Carter's Bathsheba is, at times, a little too ditzy for the independent-minded woman portrayed in Hardy's novel, and Steve Bennett's Gabriel is perhaps a little on the old side, these are petty niggles when set against the outstanding performances given by both these actors. Their colleagues James Lailey and James Woolley perform equally creditably, portraying a wide diversity of believable rustics, sheep, crones and waifs alongside their main roles.

The transformation from page to stage is also aided by the use of a host of televisual techniques: cross-cutting, audio flashback, split points of view. This is theatre which takes for granted an audience that has been trained to comprehend the artifices of the large and small screen, and uses these devices with ingenuity in a live context. The directors John Durnin and Gillian King and the designer Sarah Williamson have produced a staging with a remarkable amount of versatility, allowing rapid switches in the action and using metamorphosing props that offer gentle suggestion to aid the audience's imaginings. This is exciting theatre, great writing and stunning acting performed in one of the most audience-friendly theatres in the country, with clear sight lines, comfortable seats and a decent amount of leg-room.

Far from the Madding Crowd is a funny, moving and powerful play and anyone wanting to see how literary adaptation should be done should go to Exeter immediately. No previous knowledge of Thomas Hardy is required.

To 20 September. Booking: 01392 493493

Toby O'Connor Morse