Review: Crime and Punishment ~ theatre notes

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Review: Crime and Punishment

The Stork Theatre's production of Crime and Punishment (in fact, its entire oeuvre) is a reversal of the question that has recently so excited some of us in the theatre world - to wit, whether plays are proper literature. Rather, it raises the question of whether literature can be proper theatre. To be honest, as someone who prefers to think of categories as guides rather than as lead-lined boxes, the answer is obvious - of course it can. Just as there are indfferent plays, there are clumsy adaptations that either bowdlerise the original text or fail to understand its relation to either form in which it lives: but since when has failure closed off possibility?

And Dostoevsky's work is particularly apt to adaptation. He in fact planned Crime and Punishment - the story of a St Petersburg student with Napoleonic delusions who murders an old money-lender - in scenes and acts, which says something about the value he placed on dramatic movement in his prose. The energy and verve of his writing - its almost pulp nature, its swift graphic description and action - can translate beautifully to live performance. And in this production, imaginatively directed by Alex Menglet, that dramatic quality comes across compellingly through some stunning performances.

Judith Armstrong's adaptation is serviceable: it still bears the rags of prosaic narrative, and it has to be said that the best of it is Dostoevsky himself. Understandably, given its epic sweep and cast of characters, the novel has been cut to the bone, with the focus on the relationship between Dostoevsky's anti-hero Raskolnikov (Benedict Hardie), and the patient, acute detective who waits out the attrition of the murderer's conscience, Porfiry (Denis Moore). The third part of the triangle is Sonia (Rebecca Bowen), the abused young prostitute whose faith reignites Raskolnikov's spirituality.

Characters such as the disconcertingly amoral Svidrigailov or Raskolnikov's decent friend Razumikhin are dispensed with altogether; others like the Marmelodov family exist as footnotes. The result is a tight focus on a single aspect of the novel, the cat and mouse game Porfiry plays with Raskolnikov, from Raskolnikov's first betraying taunts to his final hysterical confession. The bulk of the play consists of the Porfiry/Raskolnikov dialogues, more or less uncut, punctuated by swift narrative summaries of the major events in the rest of the book.

The result has a static air: the dialogues are mesmerisingly good, but the connecting tissue tends to contrivance. Menglet's directorial ingenuity is to to stage the whole as if it is the recording of a radio play. The actors first appear on stage, a traverse arrangement, warming up their voices by repeating the names of the major characters, which also emphasises the essential Russianness of this very Russian tale. The business with microphones, scripts and so on gives the narration a much-needed theatrical artifice, and allows the actors to play minor characters as well as their major roles.

What makes this production unmissable is the performances. Denis Moore's Porfiry is surely one of the performances of the year: he brings a relaxed mastery to the role, playing Porfiry's disingenuous mask of the simple copper, which disconcertingly slips to reveal the man's profound intelligence and weary, compassionate knowledge of human nature. The power of this performance is lightly underlaid by a terrible sadness: it's a masterpiece of nuance and subtle gesture, which makes Porfiry instantly legible and recognisable and yet hints at inscrutable and profound privacies.

As Raskolnikov, Benedict Hardie is the perfect foil: his Raskolnikov believes his manner is all secrecy and guile, while his behaviour is transparent self-revelation. Hardie's mercurial style lets him switch moods in half a sentence: he compellingly enacts Raskolnikov's fevered contradictions, his vanity and self-loathing, and his appalling loneliness. Rebecca Bower's Sonia is a solid and controlled performance. Too much so, I think: her presence is so assured that it's hard to believe that Sonia is at all frightened or abused, and Sonia's religious extremity comes across as almost rational, rather than a desperate faith with which she maintains meaning and dignity in a life that strips her ruthlessly of both.

Because the play is staged in a room with no raked seating, it's advisable to get a seat at the front, so you can see all the action; however, even from three rows back, the performances are hugely enjoyable. Highly recommended.

Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoevsky, adapted by Judith Armstrong, directed by Alex Menglet. With Denis Moore, Benedict Hardie and Rebecca Bower. Stork Theatre @ Alliance Francaise, 51 Grey St, St Kilda, until May 9. Bookings: (03) 9410 0295.

1 comment:

omotee said...

pretty long and complex for my small head, lol. think its briliant. my pop is a prof of theatre arts so i have a little idea of these theatre things.