Wednesday, 30 October 2013

Crime and Punishment

Lyceum Theatre 29/10/13
Verdict: excellent – if you like that sort of thing!

I feel I may have had more time for this as a young man. Fyodor Mikhailovich Dostoyevsky wrote Преступлéние и наказáние (originally published in 1866) in his mid forties when he was in the middle of a gambling addiction that left him penniless and hungry. What a dick. The book follows the exploits of law student, Raskolnikov, also penniless and hungry, who, instead of doing translations like his fellow student Razumikhin to raise money, drops out of his course, takes to his bed, eats only handouts from a friend and fixates on the murder of the (supposedly evil) pawnbroker he has hocked all his stuff to. What a dick.

He kills the pawnbroker (the Crime of the title) and another woman who turns up at the wrong moment to witness the crime, then spends the rest of the show justifying his actions, feeling guilty and is on the point of confessing more than once. He is interviewed by the police although another person confesses to the crime. While there is some banter about justifying a crime if everyone is better off afterwards, it all leads to the second part of the title with a confession followed by the Punishment.

Three hours heavy with a minimal stage, sounded awful and I was not looking forward to this much at all. However a £5 discounted ticket (thanks Mike) is a small price to pay. The trouble was I'd had an utterly fabulous afternoon in the Botanics taking photos of the dazzling autumn colours and some charming squirrels and all this gloom and doom seemed, well a bit dreary by comparison. And parts of it, towards the interval as my eyelids dropped, were. Another 5 minutes and I'd have been snoring. However the whole thing was done so superbly well that I take my hat off to all concerned and applaud their efforts. Won't be reading the book any time soon though.

woopsie - nodded off and dreamt of the botanics

The performance started (or was on-going) as we entered the auditorium with the lights up and the cast walking about on stage. Once we were seated the cast sang a hymn-like Russian flavoured number in minor harmonies before the main man, an excellent Adam Best stepped forward and the house lights dimmed to let us hear his thesis on murder. The show hangs entirely on his central performance and he carries it off with admirable commitment and ability. We totally believe the lightheaded delirium of hunger and angst, through Best's acting rather than his physical appearance. His breaking wavering voice defines the haunted struggle of the protagonist and discourages us from writing it off as just being beset by mental health issues, although frankly I think this is the central concern underlying the plot. Dostoyevsky has been through many of the dire circumstances he writes about and the issues are dealt with from within, rather than objectively, which perhaps lends an authority to the piece, making it more compelling. Myself, I prefer squirrels and orange backlit trees. (The main character pretty much admits enjoying the 1,500 mile trek to Siberia (as part of the Punishment,) suggesting a lot of what he needed was just to get out more.)

And the book has 720 pages. People would probably complain if the stage version hacked that down to 40 minutes though I think if the best 40 minutes of tonight's show was stood on its own it would be very splendid. There was much that was terrific. The staging was casual minimal. Not a blank canvas but a fairly uncluttered stage with draped curtain behind, and just a row of musical instruments (piano, harpsichord, double bass, balalaika, bowed cymbal, drum etc) and furniture along the back – couches and chairs for the cast (dressed in a strangely credible mix of 1866~contemporary) who would be disappeared by the lighting or remain half lit as grumbling or sarcastic audience to Raskolnikov's soliloquies, (particularly responsive when R would compare himself egotistically to Napoleon or a “great man”.) And suddenly rise en masse, perfectly on cue, to accentuate a point or express shock. Or play the musical instruments.

The murder scene was brilliantly conveyed. It is important to the gravitas of the play that the central Crime is handled well. Raskolnikov's weapon of choice is an axe. (His mother later states that as a child he had a terrible temper and she would attend to this by giving him an axe to chop wood! - there are several good jokes along the way.) So how do you do a double axe murder every night and twice on Wednesdays without it looking stagy while avoiding actual bloodshed? Here they succeed superbly with a slash of dark red gore oozing down heavy polythene slats that is worth the admission price alone. The prostitutes' scene with descending red lamps and enough dry ice to have the stalls in coughing fits is similarly striking. (The cast, submerged, never so much as cleared their throats.) Less impressive but still intriguing was the on-stage cast, vocalising others' strained breathing (and off stage voices) into visible mics. And the use of mobile doors on casters to enter and leave scenes was simple, effective, very smoothly handled and completely convincing.

I found the casts' ability to accompany the show musically really impressive. (This was NOT a musical however and in no way was attempting a Les Mis type adaptation. There were no breaking into song moments (I stole a loaf of bread) and no showstopping sing-along shite.) They would pick up instruments as the thing progressed and knock out a ticking ambient passage on percussion and piano (with the piano opened and plucked like a harp) that perfectly underscored the chilling or painful speeches of the central players. (And would start and stop with impeccable timing.) I have no idea if the cast faced musical auditions “now what musical instrument can you bring to this performance” but several of them were outstanding. (Razumikhin on clarinet and voice.) In fact George Costigan was so adept plucking out jazzy riffs on the double bass I first thought he was miming to an audio track but as things progressed his performance seemed to be for real. (Though some piano melodies appeared without anyone seeming to play them.) And he, George, played a mandolin at another point. And this from a man I first encountered in Rita Sue and Bob Too.

In C&P he played 3 characters, for no other reason than he appeared able to, and was available. Potentially confusing as Raskolnikov admits to Costigan's police interrogator that he just left the death scene of Costigan's superbly drunken Marmeladov. However they just about get away with it. At other times the cast break into a frugally accompanied chorus, walking a nice line between Russian folk melodies, while avoiding descent into Volga Boatmen territory. While there are Russian nuances throughout the play, the whole (like the costumes) is not strictly tethered to time or place, leaving room for references to current issues, be it self-interested corrupt bankers or the politics of power.

The final minutes are a beautiful hypnotic mix of exhaustion and struggle and dreamscape with a snow shower and a spare haunting melody that perfectly rounds off the show, compressing the last chapters of the book into a whispered narrative that is more than a little spellbinding.


  1. Terrific review, Peter, agree with your summing up of dickness of R at beginning and yet wish I'd seen it by the end. Running posts are fine, but I'd really appreciate more like this.

  2. Thanks,
    No more shows with Book Group till after Christmas. Currently I don't have any pantos lined up but may review a book or 2 if anything of note comes up at Book Group. Doris Lessing next.

  3. Great, really enjoyed this as well. Going to see it on Saturday afternoon, looking forward to it.

  4. Interesting stuff PB. I tried to read this a number of years ago and gave up after the murder of a poor donkey and then the big murder. I found it completely depressing and miserable. Life's too short for such misery. Only book I've put down.