Anna Karenina (Royal Exchange)

Tolstoy’s epic novel is given a stripped back staging

Ony Uhiara as Anna and Robert Gilbert as Vronsky
Ony Uhiara as Anna and Robert Gilbert as Vronsky
© Jonathan Keenan

It's a brave team that takes on the heft of Tolstoy's 1877 masterpiece. Dramatising the volcanic torments of its characters, the almost excruciating detail of its domestic humdrum and the panoramic sweeps the novel makes across the fundamental questions about life and how to live is no small task – and hard to achieve without falling into the trap of becoming a kind of 'Reduced Tolstoy Company' production.

All the vital elements are here in Ellen McDougall's stripped back but frenetic production: Anna and Vronsky's passionate but ultimately doomed affair; Levin's prosaic return to his estate and his sweet obsession with good husbandry and with being a good husband and the pitiful officiousness of Anna's mundane ball-and-chain spouse Karenin. What's missing is the time to let all of this breathe and coalesce into a crescendo that punches the audience into emotional submission. Stripped back: yes. Rebuilt coherently: not quite.

Ony Uhiara is a beautiful Anna, natch, but perhaps fizzes too soon. As she rolls in on an ever-present strip of muddy railway track, bathed in unsparing white light, we see her already bursting with a nervous energy and skittishness that masks any poise and subtlety. She's left with almost nowhere to go from here and when she does finally succumb to her self-destruction – with eyes flashing and chest heaving – we can't say we weren't warned.

Her portentous meeting with the mouth-wateringly handsome Vronsky (Robert Gilbert) is oddly undermined by a foray into contemporary dance against a backtrack of soft rock. John Cummins' Levin is, however, spot on in his ankle-length wax jacket, his feet planted firmly in the soil of Mother Russia while Ryan Early's playful turn as Oblonsky is all bendy-kneed, puppy-dog, aristocratic twit.

Jo Clifford's adaptation sometimes skates scarily close to trite melodrama: "How could you betray me, I thought you loved me" – but she swerves at the last minute, saving the piece with a quip or an aside that undercuts it nicely. Other moments stand out from the general rush: the pathetic Karenin (a well-pitched John Keeble) mauling his adulterous wife in an action so out of character it startles and shocks; or the simple and intimate revelation of one of Levin's peasant workers that his son has died of the measles – delivered in a heart-breakingly understated way by Anthony Barclay as Ivan.

It's only in the second half that the play really hits its stride, finding a more consistent rhythm and finally shaping itself into a coherent climax. It's here that we begin to feel the dramatic heat coming off it, with a cacophony of destruction culminating in Anna's final act of defiance. A fractious and at times fragmented woman is at last at peace. This production would have benefited from more stillness and reflection, but that's a tall order for a Tolstoyan adaptation of just over two hours.

Anna Karenina continues at the Royal Exchange until 2 May 2015