First published in The Times, Monday October 16 2017
It takes a certain amount of chutzpah to condense a 900-page novel into a two-hour play. Richard Crane’s venerable stage adaptation of Dostoevsky is all the more intriguing when you consider that, in his version, only four actors enact the Russian master’s sprawling, densely populated saga.
Crane’s dramatisation was commissioned for the Edinburgh International Festival in 1981, with Alan Rickman and Peter Kelly among the original cast. This revival at the Tron reunites the script with Faynia Williams, Crane’s partner in the Brighton Theatre, and the director of that first production.
Having been performed all over the world in the intervening years, sad to say the play runs aground on its belated return to Scotland. Williams’s production features the odd vivid sequence but, taken as a whole, it feels flat and stilted, giving little impression of the thematic sweep of its source.
Pic: John Johnston
Part of the problem is the staging. Carys Hobbs’s set, a bullring surrounded by a platform with steps that rise to an upper level, contains and constrains the players (Sean Biggerstaff, Mark Brailsford, Tom England and Thierry Mabonga). Aside from a carpeting of earth that sticks to the actors’ bare feet and clothes (a nod to the visceral importance of the land in the story) the unsightly, functional structure gives no sense of Russia in the 19th century.
Although there are a couple of promising episodes in the script, including confrontations with Christ and the Devil, many scenes are performed either seated or standing, without variety or movement, with the result that we strain to fully engage with the arguments underpinning the drama, most importantly faith versus rationalism. The device of having the actors don cloaks and coats to take on supporting roles, proves burdensome and at times confusing.
Pic: John Johnston
Other areas of the production are equally variable. The relationship between these very different brothers feels authentic enough, even if there is a lack of dramatic firepower underneath the performances. The a capella singing that breaks up the action (musical direction is by Matt Regan) could do with finessing and there is a burst of energetic foot-stomping towards the end that seems out of place with the otherwise languid pace.
Indeed, too often, these extra textures feel as though they have been dropped in rather than woven seamlessly into the action, which merely adds to the impression of a production whose elements don’t mesh. The adaptation needs a more fluid treatment if it is to do justice to such a landmark tale.