Crime and Punishment

Fyodor Dostoyevsky, adapted by Chris Hannan)
Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse, Citizens Theatre, Glasgow, Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh
Liverpool Playhouse

Adam Best Credit: Tim Morozzo
Jessica Hardwick Credit: Tim Morozzo
George Costigan, Adam Best Credit: Tim Morozzo

The temptation to stage adaptations of great works of Russian literature seems to have descended on Liverpool recently like a noble plague, with Lodestar’s largely admirable production of Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita taking possession of the Unity Theatre and now Chris Hannan’s adaptation of Dostoyesky’s Crime and Punishment landing at the Playhouse.

For the adaptor, especially one who loves the original as Hannan professes to, the task of capturing the spirit of the book during two-ish hours of three-dimensional storytelling is profound. Some of the choices made here are brave and effective—for example, the complex Svidrigailov, a key character in the novel, makes no appearance, and I, for one, do not notice his absence until well after the curtain (metaphorically) falls.

As we enter the auditorium, it all looks promising—we have an early Brechtian set-up: lighting rig in plain view, props and musical instruments set out for all to see, the actors, already on stage, chatting among themselves or limbering up.

It is time. The cast of ten gathers downstage, seated in ranks like a congregation. There is a moment’s silent expectation before Raskolnikov (Adam Best) gets to his feet to testify. So far, so good.

This is a very active production (for eye and ear)—the cast, by and large, remains on stage throughout—sometimes they are themselves an audience, sometimes the troublesome voices inside the principal’s head, sometimes the judging crowd. Music and sound effects are ably provided by them, and they shift easily from character to character, as required.

Some of the time (especially in the early scenes) this approach works well—a fine example of how the theatre can be put to use in presenting a tale. But, as the show wears on, it seems increasingly busy and distracting. This seems a conscious decision—to reify the turmoil in the young man’s head—if so, then it’s a risky choice, one which confines the production to a restrictive account of the novel.

Director Dominic Hill presents us with Crime and Punishment as the story of a young man’s descent into mental breakdown (at one point, Best’s commitment to the cause sees him literally drooling his way through his lines). If Hill had his time over again, I hope he would reflect and choose a different path, for while Best’s Raskolnikov rants his way (often at too great a pace) to the end of his wits with energy and no little stage presence, an essential question about the character remains unanswered: why does this man deserve redemption? Or, put more pointedly: why is he so loved?

And loved he is. Even if we dismiss Katerina as one of those everybody-is-out-of-step-except-my-son-Rodya mothers, even if we dismiss Razumikhin as a gregarious buffoon (which he is not), even if we dismiss Sonya as some kind of idiot-saint (which she is not), even if we dismiss Porfiry’s apparent concern for his prime suspect as cynical manipulation (which it is not), we are left with Dunya—a sister who is not merely admirable and self-sacrificing, but intelligent and yet so utterly loving of her brother. Why?

What they and we must see in Rodya—behind the arrogance and the confused philosophising with its murderous consequences—is his vulnerability.

There is no sense of vulnerability here, no flavour of the conflicted student’s humanity, no genuine moments of stillness. Except in the contributions of Jessica Hardwick’s blessedly subdued Sonya, this production (especially post-interval) eschews variation of tone in favour of shouting, wailing and beating of breasts. Even the otherwise steady and engrossing George Costigan is persuaded into red nose and Ministry of Silly Walks mode, as his Porfiry interrogates the crumbling Raskolnikov. Some of these shortcomings must be laid at the door of the adaptor, but many, I fear, lie with the director.

On the plus side, Obioma Ugoala makes a warm and believable Razumikhin and Amiera Darwish as Dunya brings gravity to what she is given. Cate Hamer occupies her several roles (Alyona, Pulkheria, Katerina and Darya) body and soul.

Designer Colin Richmond provides a very effective, mobile and malleable setting for the piece.

That an intelligent, caring (albeit self-obsessed) young man, tortured by the injustice of the world, weighed down by poverty, confused and led astray by half-understood philosophies should commit a terrible crime, whilst not himself being terrible, should resonate in a twenty-first century country living in fear of homegrown jihadists and the like. To follow the essence of the novel down that track (or one equally challenging and rewarding) we need a Raskolnikov whose madness (if such it is) derives from and remains mixed with his human vulnerability.

“Don’t pity me!” he bellows at Sonya. The trouble is, we don’t.

Reviewer: Martin Thomasson

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