Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov is not a straightforwardly sympathetic figure. A scabby law school dropout, he is abstract, broken, self-pitying and self-involved, and his predicament does little to provoke fellow-feeling. Sprawling in his garret, out of the bubbling cauldron of his social disaffection, vitriol and despair, he hatches a plan to plant an axe in a sour, scrimping old pawnbroker, who specialises in keeping the crumbling patrimonies of the downwardly mobile St Petersburg bourgeoisie intact.
The deed done in a gruesomely realised gout of violence, the bulk of Crime and Punishment charts how Raskolnikov gradually comes to be haunted by his creatureliness””his early intellectual resolution replaced by fear, trembling, and shrilly unconvincing attempts at self-justification.
Dominic Hill’s production, adapted for the stage by Chris Hannan, fizzes with big ideas. Can philosophy kill conscience in a man? When reason fails me, when the props are knocked out from under my ethics, and those of society, what is left to stop me working my will, however malevolent, horrific or contrary? If not by God, or religion, or objective morality, what ethical chains, if any, bind the man abandoned to the horrible freedom of being his own moral legislator and judge in a mute universe?
Such debates can be tricky to incorporate dramatically without feeling preachy or clunky, but are lightly dealt with in this fluidly theatrical production, which condenses the slab of Dostoyevsky’s text into an impressionistic succession of scenes and snatches, and does so with considerable success. Cantering along at a good lick, with the assistance of Nikola Kodjabashia’s evocative, twanging choral score, and the many transformations of a bare stage affected by Chris Davey’s potent lighting, the talented ensemble cast of ten””alternately functioning as chorus, choir and conscience””populate the urban warren of 19th century St Petersburg, conjuring up the dank shabby apartments and student dives against which Raskolnikov’s existential travails are set.
In the role, Adam Best recalls the patient, the penitent, and the institutionalised prisoner. Best is no limp undergraduate here, but a prowling physical presence: a sullen intellectual thug, hot with provocation. The play’s success turns on our capacity to sympathise with this unsympathetic young man, and effective pacing and plotting greatly helped the audience in this regard. The increasingly suspicious authorities were also well represented by John Paul Hurley’s explosive and taut copper, and in the lovely, worldly humanity of George Costigan’s performance as the mercurial investigating magistrate, Porfiry Petrovich. Performances are strong across the board, with the whole company together conjuring a vivid sense of character and place (though Jack Lord’s pert, sniffish, straw-boatered Luzhin was a particular highlight).
Overall a certain slackness characterised Raskolnikov’s development across the piece. Yes, he learns, painfully unpicking his reasons and reasoning for killing the niggardly pawnbroker, but the Raskolnikov who closes the show felt too much like the simmering figure which opens it. Best’s performance is frequently powerful and affecting, but there could have been a greater, more explicit sense of Raskolnikov’s gradual transformation across the piece as a whole.
The thematic tightness of the apparently diffuse stories and subplots that Hannan has deftly retained in his adaptation all quietly echo and amplify Raskolnikov’s anxieties, and his predicament. Telling moments are generally left understated, commended to our understanding and judgment rather than wrestled unsubtly into view, or subjected to definitive directorial readings. One of the great strengths of this production is that both characters and philosophical ideas are permitted to speak for themselves.