GIVEN that many of the productions in Liverpool theatres, of late, have tended to be feelgood types with satisfactory endings, Chris Hannan's adaptation of Crime and Punishment was, actually, something look forward to.
It would be significantly different – perhaps a heightened sense of social realism with frictional class divides and underlying barbed political metaphors. After all, that’s what you’d expect from Dostoyevsky, right?
The self-inflicted torture
which the destitute and
portrays is mesmerising
Well, there’s certainly much of that, in terms of statement-making, but underlying it all is a simple question (or two): can crime, in this case premeditated murder, be ever justified? And under what circumstances can punishment provide an effective resolution?
Raskolnikov (Adam Best) is a failed law student whose brutal murder of an avaricious pawnbroker Alyona (Cate Hamer), and, also, her half-sister, Lizaveta (Mabel Clements), proves to be the catalyst for his own ultimate downfall. He manages to escape, but then spends the rest of the play descending into a world of existential angst both wanting to confess whilst trying to rationalise his crime as though it were for some greater good.
Many criminology and psychology students could get their heads round that, however the self-inflicted torture which the destitute and starving Raskolnikov portrays is mesmerising. Particularly the crazed logic in which, on one hand, he compares himself to Napoleon and, on the other, battles his own personal demons against the laws of the physical universe as a conscience-free creation with no intrinsic values or deterministic outcomes. Powerful stuff.
In many ways, we’re invited to identify with Raskolnikov’s predicament as both hero and villain through his emerging nihilistic psychosis – particularly on the question of whether he should confess to the crime or, rather, as it happens, suffer the consequences of his excruciating and, for the most part, unresolved guilt. It’s indeed possible that Dostoyevsky himself harboured such intentions as part of a revolutionary cell in his younger days. Art meeting life?
Certainly, there’s a good deal of transfer between his inner demons and Raskolnikov’s tirades against the shambolic nature of bourgeois injustice.
They are illustrated through his relationships with an assortment of shady characters to embellish the narrative: Sonya the born-again-Christian prostitute (Jessica Hardwick) who tries in vain to elicit redemption through the Orthodox Gospels; vodka-swigging Marmeladov and buffoon detective Petrovich (both admirably played by George Costigan). Also, Raskolnikov’s increasingly distraught mother, Pulkheria, and impoverished sister, Dunya (Cate Hamer and Amiera Darwish respectively). His erstwhile friend and confidante, Razumikin (Obioma Ugoala), seemed to be the only good guy across the unfolding drama.
That said, it became increasingly obvious that, no matter how bad their own situations were, they paled into insignificance compared to Raskolnikov’s struggles within himself to find some kind of release from the mind-numbing consequences of his crime. The punishment, in this case, being self-immolation from within, yet when he decides to finally admit his guilt and face the harsh sentence of hard-labour in Siberia, these very characters seem to almost sympathise with him before he disappears with a loyal Sonya into a winter blizzard.
My problem with this stage adaptation of Crime and Punishment wasn’t so much with the cast, production or crew – they achieved a great piece of real theatre which really pulled you through an emotional shredder. It was more to do with very real issues of recreating Dostoyevsky's self-justifying intellectualisation.
What may have worked in the book, serialised as it was, may have left much to the readers' own imaginations and value-systems, but it’s a difficult (though not impossible) task to achieve onstage no matter how much we empathise with the characters or predicaments.
Be aware of this, since it’ll impact on how you’ll ultimately experience it. Either way, it’ll make you think about what makes us human and what circumstances, if any, can justify the taking of a life without any obvious pity or remorse.
Jessica HardwickThis rare stage adaptation, by Chris Hannan, is a co-production between The Liverpool Playhouse and the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. Directed by the latter's Dominic Hill, it draws inspiration from his own experience working in a raucous Russian theatre.
Credit must be given to the stage design, costumes and ingenious use of assorted props courtesy of both the Citizens and the Royal Lyceum Theatre, Edinburgh.
These included upright pianos, a double-bass for George Costigan to work his magic, an array of versatile mobile doors and, interestingly, a painted sign on the back wall which said “No Smoking” in Cyrillic. This was the first time I’d seen the full extent of the Playhouse stage without any back wall or wings. It’s absolutely huge and it was, I guess, a deliberate attempt to create a vast expanse to allow the actors to have full rein.
They certainly achieved that across both acts with some fine individual performances and impressive hymn-singing but, ultimately, the whole play revolved around the complex internal dynamics of Raskolnikov’s fevered imagination and guilt-complex.
Adam Best not only conveyed this through forceful speeches and commanding soliloquies, but held the audience spellbound throughout as he tore his very soul to shreds in front of our eyes – his personal chemistry breathing much-needed life into Dostoyevsky’s dry intellectualisation of what were, essentially, the bitter consequences of first-degree murder.
All in all, a truly memorable performance assisted by a finely-tuned professional cast which succeeded in transforming the book into something far more human and compelling.
*Crime and Punushment runs until October 19.
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