Crime and Punishment – Reviewed

Jessica Hardwick Adam Best - Crime & Punishment (c) Tim Morozzo

Can a literary classic tell us about the times in which we live? James Hanks considers Dostoyevsky’s masterpiece, Crime and Punishment…

Chris Hannan’s adaptation and, former Assistant Director at the RSC, Dominic Hill’s unwavering direction places the main protagonist in Dostoyevsky’s classic novel right up there with drama’s other great roles.

There is more than a touch of Macbeth and Hamlet in the ambition of this production here, it feels Shakespearean, and it works.

Hannan’s clever script, timeless but somehow modern, and Hill’s vision, laid out against Colin Richmond’s chillingly stark set design transforms the story from that of simply one man’s emotional torment, to a buffeting journey in which you meet all of humanity and you live with them for awhile.

“What mystical forces deal these people the hand they hold?”

As you watch events unfold in front of the eerily oppressive exposed concrete backdrop (complete with steam belching drains), you are shaken from moments of intense heartache and empathy for an individual character, to unexpectedly finding yourself considering the human condition and what great mystical forces – political, fiscal or divine – could be at work to deal these people the hand they hold?

A psychological thriller conceived by Dostoyevsky in a Siberian prison cell, Crime and Punishment gets inside the mind of starving, desperate student Raskolnikov who commits brutal murder.

There’s a line in the play when Raskolnikov, with delusions of grandeur, proclaims that ‘the extraordinary man is criminal by nature. He breaks laws and makes new ones’. And I find myself returning to it over and over. We are being asked – does the means justify the end?

Adam Best, John Paul Hurley - Crime & Punishment (c) Tim Morozzo

Hill’s direction faithfully follows Brechtian rubric. He uses jarring techniques; the cast suddenly take up instruments and begin to sing, the actors remain in full view of the audience throughout. They never leave the stage but linger upstage at the base of the menacing concrete wall sometimes providing sound effects and sometimes appearing to comment on the action themselves.

These deliberate incongruous details make your responses alternate from heart to head, ensuring that a simple psychological thriller becomes an infinitely more complex exploration of a man’s emotional and psychological unravelling, leaving you grappling with huge philosophical and political questions. In an age of terrorism and austerity it’s frighteningly easy to transpose what you are watching to 2013 – there’s even a shout-out for greedy bankers.

It is the ingenious draw you in and push you away, make your heart bleed then alienate you utterly, nature of the performances and this production as a whole that has me linking the questions the play is posing to me to the motives of a modern day terrorist.

Did the Westgate Mall hostage-takers ask themselves what is just? What right they had to take lives for their cause? Obama must have reflected on the same moral conundrums with his military generals when the urge to bomb Syria to save the world from chemical attack appeared so very nearly irresistible.

“It throws into focus how acts like murder, terrorism and prostitution are justified by their perpetrators”

Could a theatrical adaptation of a novel written 150 years ago be predicting the shopping mall siege in Nairobi? OK, perhaps not. But it undoubtedly throws into focus how acts of such magnitude, like murder, terrorism and prostitution are justified by their perpetrators and how society chooses to judge where the line that must not be crossed lies.

George Costigan as investigator Porfiry seems to be the one source of clear thinking in the crazy underworld we are witnessing. He is safe in his own knowledge and he is surprisingly funny too, another ruse that jolts you from being too drawn in or distracted from the play’s messages.

While Adam Best as Raskolnikov is more than convincing as a man tearing himself apart with his own thoughts, he too provides grim relief with some lovely comic touches. If I was ultra critical I might say I had imagined the character less gritty and a little more preppy and public school boyish, but this is a minor personal observation and he and Costigan are outstanding.

With all the concepts and questions about fate, faith and one’s own agency that have been so deftly planted in our minds over the last hundred and twenty minutes ricocheting around our heads, there’s an audible gasp from the audience as the climax of the final monologue reverberates in the hushed old Playhouse.

As the lights fade momentarily to signal the play’s end (the actors never leave the stage, remember), it’s as if there’s a collective ‘wow’ from those in their seats. We know we’ve just seen theatre in all its glorious epic-ness.

This play is compelling dramatically, visually and intellectually, and not intimidating. Go and see it, but don’t forget to take your thinking cap!

James Hanks

Crime and Punishment continues @ the Liverpool Playhouse unitl 19th October £12-£23 Images courtesy Tim Morozzo

Posted on 07/10/2013 by thedoublenegative