(Alfred Hickling’s article appeared in the Guardian, 3/25.)
Jo Clifford’s intent to provide more than a dogged precis of Tolstoy’s novel is served when she jettisons one of the most celebrated opening lines in literature, but commences the work with a candlelit vigil and the brusque statement: “This is how it began.” Clifford instils the action with a briskness of purpose, as the cast step out of their roles to introduce themselves and explain their motivation: “Now I’m on a train to Moscow”; “I’m Katy’s father. I disapprove.” But the chief innovation of Clifford’s version, which was first seen at Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum in 2005, is that it pares down everything to a couple of parallel, unhappy relationships: between Anna and her lover, Count Vronsky, and between the agrarian idealist Levin and his childhood friend Katy.
It works superbly, as if a vast five-act opera has been reorchestrated as a string quartet. Gone are the novelistic repetitions (Levin endures the humiliation of an unsuccessful proposal only once), as are the discursive passages on agricultural reform – though there is a perceptive parallel drawn between the conflicts of good husbandry and being a good husband. It ends, as drama decrees it must, with Anna’s suicide beneath the wheels of a train. Tolstoy’s novel spends a further 19 chapters tying up loose ends.